Once the 'change' candidate, Obama now a changed man

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 18, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Nearing the end of his first year in office, President Barack Obama is in many ways a changed man.

He's stayed the course on his highest-profile goals, still reaching for universal health care, still striving for a global pact to curb global warming.

Governing has proved to be far different from campaigning, however. The world looked different once elected. The economy raced even faster toward collapse and Afghanistan worsened. Congress turned out more difficult. The world proved resistant to his charms.

Also, the image of Obama as an idealistic, post-partisan leader who'd transform politics at home and abroad has given way to a more pragmatic, partisan politician, one who's abandoned or broken promises in pursuit of deals such as health care, who no longer invites Republicans to the White House for drinks, who's seen his outreach to rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea met with defiance.

"They always change," said George Edwards, a scholar of the presidency at Texas A&M University.

"Campaigning is wonderland. It's all aspirations, like saying let's close Guantanamo Bay. But you get in and, gosh, it requires a lot of things that are hard. ...They've learned some things about the basic strategies of governing."

"He was the 'Yes, I can' president confronting a 'No, you can't' world. He's learned a lot from that," said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser and the author of the soon-to-be-published book "Can America Have Another Great President?"

From the start, Obama vowed to be different. Not only was he going to enact things such as universal health care that no Democrat had managed before, he was going to do it in ways that would change how Washington worked.

He would, for example, rip away the curtain of secrecy, opening negotiations on health care to live coverage on C-SPAN.

That never happened. One White House forum was televised; all negotiations have been held in secret. When Obama meets one on one with members of Congress to talk about the legislation, it's not only behind closed doors, but also the meetings themselves often aren't announced.

He'd stand up to the drug companies, too, he said, vowing to allow Americans to buy lower-priced prescription drugs from other countries.

"We'll tell the pharmaceutical companies, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' for overpriced drugs," candidate Obama said.

Now the Senate has refused to allow imports of drugs, thanks in part to a last-minute question about safety from Obama's Food and Drug Administration.

White House aides say there was no deal, noting that the FDA has raised safety questions about imported drugs as far back as the Clinton administration. That was known when Obama made his campaign pledge, however.

Overall, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, Obama is pragmatic about what it takes to get health care legislation through Congress.

"The art of governing is about getting what you can get through Congress," Gibbs said. "I don't think he gets stuck in minutiae ... as long as health care reform meets the principles we laid out before Congress. Obviously, there's a bunch of different ways to get to that."

While Obama has stuck with his broad agenda, he adapted to circumstances by reordering his priority list.

With the economy losing 741,000 jobs in January as he prepared to take office, for example, he pushed back health care and other proposals to enact an $800 billion package of tax cuts and spending first to stimulate the economy.

Then, with the U.S. auto industry again threatened with collapse, he pushed through a plan to take over General Motors.

"I didn't run for president to pass emergency recovery programs or to bail out banks or to shore up auto companies," he said last week.

He did all those things, however, and the controversial actions used political capital that might have been employed on other goals.

Obama also thought he'd be the one to do something that predecessors such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried and failed to do: reach out to the other major political party.

He invited Republicans to the White House for cocktails. Then to watch the Super Bowl. Then he went to Capitol Hill to visit with them.

It didn't work. Republicans almost unanimously have opposed his major initiatives, from that first stimulus spending through the current health care proposal. He still says he wants to work with them, but the fact is that health care now relies almost entirely on Democratic votes. The bipartisan cocktail parties also have disappeared from the schedule.

"It's a quite important change in his approach to governing," Edwards said. "When they came in, they had certain notions about bipartisanship. ...They had to abandon it."

Also, Edwards said, Obama had to abandon the hope that early successes with Congress would build momentum for others.

"They thought they were going to increase the opportunity structure. The more victories we get, the easier it gets for more victories. It was exactly the opposite. The president had to deal with the economy first. That meant spending an enormous amount of money and unprecedented interventions in the private sector. Talk about polarizing polices. All of this got people's dander up."

On the world stage, the president ends the year with perhaps a different approach to rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea.

First as a candidate and then in his inaugural address, Obama vowed to talk with any other country in the world, even dictators. "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist," he said on Jan. 20.

He's tried, reaching out to North Korea and Iran — in each case to stop their march toward developing nuclear weapons.

It hasn't worked. Iran acted as if it were going along with international negotiations, but it's said it will expand its nuclear energy program in defiance of the United States and allies. Now the United States is moving toward sanctions.

North Korea also brushed aside the open hand policy.

"Openness at the front end to reopen some dialogue met with a missile test and then a nuclear test," said John Podesta, who chaired Obama's transition a year ago and is a former White House chief of staff.

"It probably solidified the position of the administration that maybe that wasn't the going-in idea. ...It solidified the position that you don't reward this behavior."

Beyond those two nations, Obama also found that he couldn't force Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table and couldn't produce a global treaty on global warming.

If the president has moved past the open hand policy toward Iran and North Korea or has shifted course on other world problems, however, Miller said he couldn't say for certain what the new Obama approach would be.

In the White House, aides see the engagement with Iran as a necessary step. In the best possible scenario, it would have led to Iran stopping its nuclear program. In the worst, it would show the world that the U.S. tried diplomacy, showed Iran to be a thug and helped rally such skeptics as China and Russia for the next possible step, sanctions.

"That would bring the world with us if we had to take a different path on Iran," Gibbs said. "And I think that's largely where we find ourselves."

Obama now is content that he tried diplomacy — and would return to it if possible — but he's ready to move on.

"He's moving into a new phase," Gibbs said. "Throughout this process there has been and there will be an avenue, particularly for Iran, to live up to its responsibilities. But the time for playing games at the end of this year will be over."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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