Where are Obama’s Supporters?

I was thinking about mconley’s comment on this blog yesterday — that our government hasn’t given us much reason to trust it in a long time — when I read this in the Times this morning:

Economists say that the president’s $787 billion stimulus package has helped blunt the downturn in limited but discernible ways. …

“The signs of the stimulus are there,” said Allen L. Sinai, chief economist at Decision Economics, a forecasting firm in New York. “Government — federal, state and local — is helping take the economy from recession to recovery. I think it’s the primary contributor.”

Despite this, economic experts were predicting that with today’s jobless numbers, the unemployment rate would rise above 9.5. I’d read it was going to hit 9.6 percent.

That, the Times reported, would have provided “Republicans and conservative economists new ammunition to argue that the stimulus has been a waste of taxpayer money.” (Can you hear them rooting for it to fail? Bring on the suffering so we can get ourselves re-elected!)

Well, guess again. When the Labor Department released the jobless report this morning, unemployment had dropped to 9.4 percent.  As the AP reports:

Employers sharply scaled back layoffs in July, and the unemployment rate dipped for the first time in 15 months, sending a strong signal that the worst recession since World War II is finally ending.

Do the math. That’s the first drop in unemployment since April of 2008, when the economy started to crater.

I don’t mean to paint an overly rosy picture. Experts say the job market won’t stabilize until next spring, and more losses are surely ahead. But would anyone seriously argue that the stimulus has not saved hundreds of thousands of jobs at this point?

That is: government — despite constraining partisan divides — is helping.

This got me thinking, as Obama marks his 200th day in office, about some of the other things his administration has done, that should have earned our trust.

In foreign affairs, he has reached out to the Muslim world — just as he said he would during the election campaign — allowing the United States to actually gain popularity and credibilityon the Arab street. He ordered Guantanamo closed. He has kick-started a totally moribund peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, inducing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to say for the first time that he endorsed a two state solution. He has boldly asked Israel to reign in settlements — but only as part of a regional approach, in which Arab countries are being asked to make concrete gestures to Israel, from offering commercial offices in Tel Aviv to letting El Al fly over Arab countries en route to Asia.

Joe Biden said Obama would be tested early, and he has been. On Obama’s order in April, Navy snipers cut down three Somali pirates and rescued an American sea captain being held hostage. This week, working behind the scenes, the Obama administration helped arrange President Clinton’s mission to North Korea, securing the release of two American journalists who were headed to the gulags.

Think about the boldness of these gestures, and the calculated risks involved. Think about what Rush Limbaugh would be saying had either of them gone wrong.

But wait, there’s more. Just hours ago, we learned that an unmanned CIA drone has apparently struck and killed the main leader of Pakistan’s fearsome Taliban militia. A bloodthirsty terrorist, taken out as he was receiving kidney treatment in a remote village in South Waziristan. As the Times reports:

The American government made killing or capturing Mr. Mehsud one of its top priorities this year, and his death would boost President Obama’s effort to weaken a resurgent Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

On the domestic front, Obama has courageously attempted to find political consensus on some of the most critical — and intractable — issues of our time. Under his leadership, the House has passed a bill that would for the first time begin to address global warming in a serious way. And despite the fact that so many U.S. presidents have crashed and burned trying to fix our broken health care system, Obama has stuck to his campaign promise, making it Issue No. 1 for his young presidency. Moreover — forget about what John McCain says — Obama is indeed seeking a bipartisan solution.  That’s why he’s waiting to see what compromise Democrats and Republicans come up with in the Senate finance committee. Obama’s even signalled that he could be willing to retreat on what for him has been a center piece of reform — a public option for providing health insurance — if it meant getting a bill that would cover the majority of Americans.

Cash for clunkers is wildly popular, spurring the auto industry, helping car dealers, and removing inefficient gas guzzlers from our highways. We have a Latina woman on her way to the Supreme Court, shattering another barrier. Obama is promoting aide to community colleges in a way that has earned praise from conservative commentators. He has quickly restored our image around the world.

Oh, he’s made plenty of mistakes. But, unlike his predecessor, he’s admitted them — see, for example, the Gates arrest — and he has sought to use them to promote tolerance and reconciliation.

In short, he has already done much of what he said he would do during his election campaign, which, as I pointed out yesterday, he won by nearly 10 million votes.

And, yet, his popularity is slipping. And we supporters can’t shake the feeling that while we are winning the war, we are badly losing the battles.

Why?

The always depressing Paul Krugman provides an answer in his column this morning.

Krugman notes that wherever Democratic leaders have gone to town hall meetings to promote health care reform, they have been met by screeching mobs. Some of this, he notes, is orchestrated by interest groups who want to kill reform at all costs. But, he argued, we can’t discount the throngs of people who appear genuinely angry. He writes:

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Now, people who don’t know that Medicare is a government program probably aren’t reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.) But they’re probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is. 

It doesn’t really matter what he’s done, and what he’s trying to do. People are reacting to who he is. There’s a phrase for this in Judaism. It’s called baseless hatred.

Here, though, is the problem. As Krugman notes:

Right now Mr. Obama’s backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his administration isn’t living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity.

And if Mr. Obama can’t recapture some of the passion of 2008, can’t inspire his supporters to stand up and be heard, health care reform may well fail.

He’s right. But don’t be so quick to put the whole burden on Obama.  All of us who hit the streets for him last fall need to look in the mirror and ask: Do we really intend to sit the rest of this one out? Having elected a pragmatic, progressive president, are we content to let the birthers and their ilk set the terms of the debate?

Remember. History isn’t always written by the victor. Sometimes, it’s written by those who shout the loudest.

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