Recently, President Obama announced that the Department of Homeland Security would no longer attempt to deport certain individuals who arrived in the country illegally. His announcement was a watershed event, the most meaningful change in immigration policy since a bipartisan agreement in 1986 granted amnesty to millions of undocumented individuals residing in the United States (yes, you read that correctly - Ronald Wilson Reagan signed an amnesty law). Days like this remind those of us who voted for Obama why his candidacy held such promise. Indeed, the lesson he and his team seem to miss is that he leads most effectively when he is being audacious, when he is, pardon the expression, leaning "forward."
Obama's decision to stand down on deportation is also instructive when looked at in context with other choices he has made that spoke to a larger vision for America. Consider his decision to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Not only did Obama get on the right side of an important civil rights issue, but he stared down the blind and mindless opposition that the right threw out about how eliminating DADT would lead to a parade of horribles. In the span of a little more than a year, we've gone from a military where gay people could not serve openly to the Pentagon sponsoring gay pride month events. Similarly, his public support for gay marriage allowed him to articulate a vision for America that is inclusive, of righting an historical wrong and giving voice and acceptance to a long-maligned minority. If that is not what the Presidency is for, I don't know what is.
But it is not just on social justice that Obama has been well served by leading. As has been exhaustively chronicled, he took the harder, but more satisfying course in hunting down and killing Osama Bin Laden. He could have gone the safe route of dropping bombs from fighter jets, but there was no guarantee of success and any evidence in Bin Laden's possession would have been destroyed. No, he took the riskier path, but in doing so, got confirmation of Bin Laden's death and a trove of intelligence that has resulted in the killing of another dozen Al Qaeda leaders in the time since the operation. In addition, Obama withdrew all of our combat forces from Iraq, a campaign promise that easily could have been stymied by the military or an outcry of Republicans crying "cut and run."
On the other hand, Obama tends to get himself in trouble when he "leads from behind." He was largely absent from the finer points of policy making around the Affordable Care Act, where a passionate and consistent defense of the "public option" was there for his taking and in the bank bailout, which he continued with little in the way of punishment for the Wall Street barons who blew up the economy. Instead of taking a hard line, he let bankers know he was what was between them and the "pitchforks." In the meantime, he refused entreaties to offer greater homeowner relief and much of that middle class angst was redirected into anger not against Wall Street, but Washington.
Even on his signature issues, Obama settled for half a loaf. The Recovery Act, passed in the weeks following his inauguration, was weighted down with hundreds of billions in tax cuts in an effort to draw bipartisan support that never arrived. The Dodd-Frank legislation began as a somewhat muscular piece of financial regulation only to be watered down as it made its way through committee. In both instances, Obama settled for broad policy strokes instead of injecting himself directly into the fray, refusing to make the argument that esoteric issues like derivatives regulation matter or that a better use of public funds was not across the board tax cuts but greater investment in works projects, mortgage relief or long-term aid to states and localities. What the Obama team failed to realize is that they would not get a true second bite at the stimulus apple and instead, relied on less effective means of promoting growth (tax cuts) because that was all Republicans would agree to. Even when kismet struck, that second "stimulus" was yet more tax cuts (along with a little slice of unemployment insurance extension) that served to line more deeply the pockets of the wealthy that did not need help.
This is not to say that Obama has failed, but rather, that having taken difficult stands on meaningful social and military policy, his failure to do so in other arenas is all the more vexing. If he wishes to become the transformational President he claimed he wanted to be, it is not enough to call for the repeal of the Bush tax cuts for high wage earners, he needs to come forward with a meaningful and progressive tax reform proposal that does not just eliminate some loopholes that a future Congress and President will reinsert, but makes the argument that after 30 years of income redistribution upwards, the truly rich, the 1% of the 1% have to pay far more. He cannot take a principled stand in asking for people to delay entry to Medicare, he must propose ways for people to gain access earlier, in the same way accepting Social Security before your full retirement reduces your benefit, citizens should be entitled to enter Medicare beginning at age 55 if they are willing to contribute more toward their coverage. For struggling homeowners, he needs to stop with half hearted measures and direct Freddie and Fannie to write down loan amounts in exchange for shared appreciation agreements where the government would split proceeds when the property is sold.
The education the President has received in the ways of Washington has come at an enormous cost to the poor and middle class. The lessons of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, immigration enforcement, withdrawing from Iraq and setting a timetable for pulling out of Afghanistan should inform the President's thinking that the American people want to be led, they want to know their President has a clear view of where he wants to take the country and that he will do so with an eye toward fairness and the public good. At a time when confidence in our public institutions is at an all-time low, what we as a country seek, is the sense that the system is not rigged, that the entrenched interests don't always win and the right thing can still be done.
The conceit that Obama cannot move public opinion or individual members of Congress has never truly been tested because the President has never utilized the muscular power of his bully pulpit. When it came down to brass tacks on policies that his leadership was desperately needed in, he largely punted - what would have some visits to districts or states of vacillating Democrats (or stonewalling Republicans) have done when it came time to look at health care, financial regulation reform or stimulus spending. We don't know, and if he loses in November, we never will.