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[Chalice] Dreams, Accomplishments and Disappointments: [Chalice]
Obama's First Year in the White House

Presented January 17, 2010, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

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I have to confess this morning that I don't even want to give a talk. I would like to just have a long talk back period so we can all have a discussion together about something we really have not been able to talk about together, this very important topic of how we feel the Obama administration is doing now that we are one full year into the Obama presidency. Are we very happy with the performance of the president and of the administration, merely satisfied, or disappointed? Probably we feel all 3 about different aspects of this administration so far, so in what areas are we happy, in what areas are we satisfied, and in what areas are we disappointed?

As we venture into this discussion we should be aware of course that not all of us voted for Obama, though I would gladly bet all of my money that most of us did. What is more and more significant, I don't think any one of us here in our community in this church would consider him or herself a member of the "hate Obama and hope he fails" segment of our society. Even those of us who didn't vote for him still wish him well and want him and his administration to succeed. And many of us feel heavily invested in this administration. Many of us, perhaps even most of us, experienced the Bush years as something like wandering around in the wildnerness hoping to just get out of it. A young inspiring leader named Barack Obama came along and led the country out of the wilderness of the last 8 years. Many of us, perhaps most of us, opposed the Iraq War from before its beginning, so when the new president stands in Cairo and says to the world those words of Jefferson that the less we use our power the greater it will be and admits to the world that we should not have used our power the way the Bush administration used it in Iraq, those are not just words to us. We have been waiting a long, long time to hear those words, and we also know these words would have never been said by President McCain. We are, many of us, perhaps most of us, heavily invested in the success of this administration, with a lot of our long-delayed hopes and expectations wrapped up in it, so how do we think it is going now that Obama has been president for an entire year?

Probably many of us have the tendency to be very lenient with the administration and sympathetic to it and patient with it given the force of the great resistance to it. We all know that this administration began with great hope for bi-partisan cooperation but that those hopes were quickly dashed. It's perhaps sad now to reread these words from Obama's inaugural address: Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

It is sad to read these words now, one year on, knowing that so many people and factions in this country saw one great challenge and have given their all to one difficult task since that inaugural speech, to defeat this administration at every turn. No matter what this administration tries to do and no matter how much common sense it makes-whether it be economic stimulus or financial reregulation or health care reform-the administration has to deal with absolutely united Republican opposition and the constant chorus of extreme right-wing crazies on the radio and TV who constantly paint Obama as just this side of the devil himself. So I suppose many of us if we are not happy with the progress of this administration in some key areas would still be very supportive of and sympathetic to Obama given the constant and constantly vitriolic opposition to everything he tries to do. But I am sure some of us would not be so lenient with the administration and would articulate strong disappointment with it for not getting as much of its agenda accomplished.

So I would like to open up the discussion, how do we feel the Obama administration has been doing and have us focus the discussion on certain key areas. The first is the economy. The administration did get Congress to approve the stimulus package, 800 billion dollars, not as much as the administration wanted but what it got. Has it helped? Are you satisfied with the economy? Unemployment is still above 10%. Does this mean that the stimulus package has failed? Have we actually seen it working, seen more money flowing into local projects and getting people or keeping people employed? The stock market has recovered amazingly and is up about 10,000. Does that matter to you and do you give Obama credit for that?

Sticking with economic issues, how about the re-regulation of the financial industry? It is a year and a half after deregulation nearly caused another great worldwide depression. What has the Obama administration accomplished in terms of passing legislation regulating the financial system? Why hasn't this happened yet? Are we satisfied with what the administration is proposing in this area? And how do we feel about the administration efforts in the area of reforming the credit card industry? The administration did propose and managed to get passed by Congress what it promoted as major reform of the credit card industry. Now the credit card providers are legally obligated to give you 45 days notice if they are going to raise your interest rates and they have to explain to you how long it will take you to pay off your debt if you only pay the minimum balance. But they are still free to charge you 30 or 35% interest, nothing has been done about the fees of 30 or 40.00 they charge you every time you go over your limit or don't pay on time. And most alarming of all, they are still perfectly able to raise your interest rate to whatever they want when you are late not just on the payment for their credit card but for any other credit payment, like your mortgage, or your car payment. Given the much deserved public outrage at the credit card industry, executives in this industry must be pretty relieved at the mildness of these reforms.

Of course the major initiative and the major reform pushed by the Obama administration is in the area of health care. After decades of attempts by various administrations, we may now actually have major health care reform. Assuming the entire process is not undone by the senatorial election in MA on Tuesday, how do we feel about the reforms that will hopefully eventually be in place? Are we excited or disappointed? If the House and Senate reconcile their differences and pass the legislation, will we consider this a major victory for the administration and expect it to improve health care significantly or do we feel the major reforms-a public option for health care insurance, the ability to buy into medicare at 55-have been sacrificed away and insufficiently fought for by the administration? We all know that if this legislation actually finally gets approved, the Obama haters and resisters will claim that Obamacare will ruin the country, but that doesn't really matter. What does matter is how the rest of us feel about it. Do we have confidence that this legislation will really improve the situation of how we as Americans get health care and how much we pay for it and how much we are concerned about it?

If we look beyond these key domestic issues, how do we feel about the administration's initiatives in foreign policy? Certainly one of the first things Obama did in office is condemn torture and promise to close Guantanamo Bay within the first year. Does the fact that this deadline has not been met mean that we have been betrayed by the administration? How do we feel about the fact that the Bush administration policy of indefinite detention has not been repudiated but continued by the Obama administration, which has decided to detain prisoners indefinitely in IL rather than in Guantanamo Bay?

Certainly many who support Obama were hoping for some progress in terms of peace between Israelis and Palestinians and some real progress in persuading Israel to stop new settlements and work toward an autonomous state for the Palestinians. Obama used some strong and encouraging words in his Cairo speech:

It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop. Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society."

This is strong rhetoric for an American administration to use, but it is also fair to ask what it has accomplished for the Palestinians thus far.

Of course the major foreign policy initiative of the administration has been to increase the troop presence in Afghanistan. Obama doubled the troop strength to 60,000 and then in November agreed to add another 30,000 troops this year. This is how he explained this to the country in early December:

I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.

So now we are gradually pulling our troops out of Iraq but quickly increasing the number of our troops in Afghanistan, and more of our soldiers are getting killed and seriously wounded in Afghanistan. Do we believe that the sacrifice of our soldiers in Afghanistan makes more sense and is more justifiable than it was in Iraq? Do we believe that Obama is doing the right thing in tripling our troop presence in Afghanistan or is this a futile endeavor which will cost us many more lives, hundreds of billions dollars more, and many more years of endless occupation of another Muslim country? Are we really going to secure Afghanistan and Pakistan and defeat al Quaeda in both countries by increasing the troop strength, and how long is that really going to take? And when Obama openly tries to persuade the country about increasing the troops in Afghanistan he doesn't say anything about all the civilian contractors that we are also paying to occupy Afghanistan. Is the Obama administration's simply leaving this out of the equation and not talking about it less objectionable than when the Bush administration did the same thing in Iraq?

Have we been convinced by Obama's speech and believe that he is doing the right thing in Afghanistan or are we disappointed?

These are some of the major issues and policies of the administration in its first year and I am looking forward to hearing how you are feeling about all of them now that we have one year of the administration behind us. Discussing these issues openly here is one of the things we do in this church. One of our Unitarian principles endorses the use of the democratic process within our churches and within society itself. Our own experience of actually living in and participating in a real democracy is enriched by the community of conversation that is this church.

So I hope we have time to talk about all of this during the talk back and the coffee hour. I will refrain from giving my own opinion about everything though I will say that I am disappointed that the administration does not seem to understand how deeply transformative some of us want it to be. Transformative not just in the sense of having a Democratic administration or even having a black president, but transformative in the sense of actually challenging and changing the way most Americans tend to think. The whole health care debate provides a good example of the kind of transformation we need. Of course the opponents of health care reform are going to call it socialized medicine, a government take over of health care that will ruin the great care you get now from your own doctor. They have been saying that for a generation, so long that that has simply become the truth, the way many people think. The Obama admistration seems to not understand that they have to counter that truth with another truth that may transform how people think. They should constantly be telling us not only that there are too many people without health insurance but that even those with it are paying way too much for it or their employers are paying so much that they cannot increase their wages. And that people don't feel free to leave their jobs because they are afraid they will lose their healthcare coverage. They should be actively countering that view many Americans have that everything is better here for us than anywhere else by saying the truth that Americans have to put up with in terms of their health care so much more than so many other citizens of other countries. If the Obama administration doesn't transform the way we think about this issue, we will revert to the usual way we think: why change the health care system. We Americans have the best health care in the world!

Financial reregulation provides another example of this need to transform the usual ways we as Americans think. The banks and insurance and investment companies are already opposing common sense regulations by saying they will be bad for the economy and will hinder future economic growth. You'd think after they nearly destroyed the world's financial system and needed to be rescued by government bailouts that they would be more reluctant to spread around their version of the truth but it isn't so. All the more reason that the administration has to counter this by explaining to the country about the history of deregulation and how that led to banks and investment companies risking the financial wellbeing of the world for their own short term gains. The administration has to bring its own version of the truth of what happened and get the American people to think within that truth. If they don't most will fall back on the usual truth that government shouldn't intervene in the economy but should just the free market do its own thing.

There are many other examples of ways in which I believe the Obama administration should be actively trying to change the way we think, and I am frustrated that this is not happening nearly as much as it could be and should be. The Obama administration is getting roasted by the tea party crowd and lots of others because of the ballooning national debt. Again, they should challenge this with truth. Yes, the national debt is increasing but the Bush administration just doubled the national debt and what did we get out of it? The Obama administration is increasing the debt for sure but it is also helping people buy a more fuel efficient car or a new furnace or new windows or solar panels. The Obama administration has to counter the truth of the tea parties with their own truth.

I will say, in closing, that my own greatest disappointment with the Obama administration came on Christmas Day when the Nigerian tried to blow up the plane headed for Detroit. It turns out that the father of this man had actually come to American authorities and warned them that his son had been radicalized and may even have received terrorist training in Yemen. A warning like this and all the authorities decide to do is to ask him additional questions the next time he applies for a visa? This sounds exactly like the kind of thing that happened before September 11th that you read about in the September 11th Commission Report. But that this could happen 8 years after September 11th, that this guy even after the warning from his father could simply use his American visa no questions asked and board that plane to Detroit, is simply inexcusable.

©2010 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob 2010. Dreams, Accomplishments and Disappointments: Obama's First Year in the White House, /talks/20100117.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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