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2009 Performance Review: Obama, Barack

BU experts reflect on year one


We’ve made a full trip around the sun since Barack Obama raised his hand on the U.S. Capitol steps and took an oath only 42 other men have taken, none of them African-American. A lot of hope hung in the air.

At the time, BU Today asked experts on campus what advice they would offer the newly minted president; the answers ranged from energy to the war on terrorism to workers’ rights. No doubt, Obama has had a busy year since, one charged with critical and tumultuous issues — among them, bailing out Wall Street and Detroit, preparing to close Guantanamo, surging troops into Afghanistan, health-care reform, tightening national security, and rushing humanitarian relief to Haiti. On this first anniversary, we decided to check back to see how well our panelists thought Obama had heeded their suggestions.

Charles Merzbacher, associate professor of film and television, College of Communication
“Force us to conserve and to find alternative sources of energy. For that, we will thank you someday.” January 16, 2009

If politics is the “art of the possible,” President Obama has proven himself an adept artist. This explains why he hasn’t risked any political capital on my proposal to raise the federal tax on oil. With the economy lumbering out of a recession of epochal proportions, no one wants to do anything that will appear to add to the cost of doing business. If the political climate were less polarized, the president could use his enormous rhetorical skills to persuade Americans across a broad ideological spectrum that a gradual ramping up of the tax on oil makes sense. Some would see this as a “green” initiative, while others would appreciate the fact that it would spur the market for technological innovation, wean us from dependence on foreign oil, and lower the deficit.

Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations and history, College of Arts & Sciences
“Once your honeymoon ends — and it will, sooner than you think — the Afghan war will be your war. Don’t let it become your Iraq.” January 16, 2009

My hope — that’s hope, not expectation — had been that the president might extricate the United States from Afghanistan. Instead, he has chosen to up the ante there. Afghanistan truly has become Obama’s War. Where exactly this deepened commitment to Afghanistan will lead is impossible to say at this point. What we can say is this: had we elected John McCain president, he would have done much the same thing. Despite the promise of “change” that was central to candidate Obama’s appeal, the central core of U.S. national security policy will remain essentially unchanged. The new administration has effectively given a new lease on life to President Bush’s failed global war on terror. A great opportunity has been squandered.

Tamar Frankel, professor, School of Law
“Follow your ideals. Let us follow ours. Avoid ideology. Lead, but do not rule.”
“Maintain and retain our trust in you and in America. Help us create a culture of trustworthiness.”
“Avoid theories in the service of power without accountability, selfishness without care for others, and freedom without law.”
January 16, 2009

President Obama followed his ideals. Potential, and real, terrorists were released, even at risk. And when faulty security service has been discovered, he orders tightening the security but not opening camps in which people, no matter how bad and dangerous, are being tortured.

I am not sure that President Obama succeeded this year in maintaining trust in America and creating a culture of trustworthiness. Yet, culture does not change in a year. I think he is sowing the seeds for it, but bending, too. Private financial power in America is strong, and it is well connected to government. Shoring up its financial and power privileges involves a battle. So the jury is out on this issue.

While President Obama followed his ideals, I believe he avoided ideology. He has shown flexibility. If something did not work, he changed the tactics but not the ideal. And he did “muddle through” to prevent the good from slipping into bad. It may not sound glamorous, but it is the best way.

I believe that President Obama did “avoid theories in the service of power without accountability, selfishness without care for others, and freedom without law.” But these objectives must give way to the “reality of Washington.” President Obama seems to be learning without losing sight of his ultimate goal. It seems that his orders have avoided a greater and longer disaster period in the United States. But the situation is not over. It took 30 years or more to deteriorate into what we have today. It cannot be reversed in one year.

My concern is that President Obama will not be able to maintain his leadership power to achieve accountability where it is lacking. This is still an open issue. Right now, much accountability is lacking.

Kevin Gallagher, associate professor of international relations, College of Arts & Sciences
“Honoring and reevaluating our existing trade commitments will give us legitimacy at home and abroad.” January 20, 2009

President Obama pledged toreevaluate then reset U.S. trade policy on a new course. In 2009, the administration did some reevaluating of Bush-era trade policy, but it remains to be seen whether new U.S. trade policy will truly be a reset.

To rethink U.S. policy, the administration set up an advisory committee to evaluate U.S. investment treaties and come up with a new model for future negotiations with nations like China, India, and Brazil.

The administration also undertook various other reviews and is said to be unveiling its new 21st Century trade policy in negotiations for a Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement with nations such as Chile, New Zealand, Vietnam, and others very soon.

Trade policy analysts and the U.S. Congress can hardly wait to see what these processes reveal. One thing is certain. Trade policy is as controversial as ever.

The business community wants unbridled access to foreign markets. Critics argue that the current model has brought harmful social, environmental, and regulatory effects. One side wants as few rules as possible in U.S. agreements, others want to reregulate them.

In reality, the administration and its critics may have to press pause for yet another year. Trade policy is too decisive in an election year.

Farouk El-Baz, research professor and director, Center for Remote Sensing
“Don’t send anyone anywhere; ask them to follow you as you lead.” January 16, 2009

Your worldwide standing remains unequaled. In fact, you are the most admired and respected leader in the world today. Yet, Americans expect more. Although our economic mess started before your time, people feel that government bailouts helped the Big Boys, but not the average person. This has been exacerbated by excessive bonuses on Wall Street.

We also wish to see stern reprimands of those responsible for security lapses at home (the Christmas bomber) and abroad (the CIA in Afghanistan). Tough reprimands for failure on the job are just as important as generous rewards for success.

In the rest of the world, there remains a need for focused attention to resolve the cause of our problems with the Islamic world: continued Israeli intransigence in the West Bank and Gaza. U.S. leadership is required to effect a peace treaty that gives the Palestinians their human rights and a viable state — soon.

The world still looks to the United States for leadership. This might not last for long unless you reassert, along with our military power, our moral courage and humanitarianism.

Louis E. Lataif (SMG’61, Hon.’90), Allen Questrom Professor and Dean, School of Management
“Do not destroy workers’ rights to a secret ballot.”
January 16, 2009

My counsel to the new president was to withhold his support for “Card Check” legislation, the deceptively named Employee Free Choice Act that would eliminate the secret ballot privilege for workers when voting for union representation. In the crush of economic concerns, Afghanistan, and the ongoing federal takeover of the U.S. health-care system, “Card Check” legislation has not made it to a front burner. It is difficult to know if the president’s support has waned or if it is simply a matter of legislative priorities. In any case, the economy desperately needs the energy, investment, and competitiveness of the job-creating business sector, particularly small business. The “Card Check” legislation will irreparably harm small businesses while denying American workers their long-established right. There have been no reports of workers anywhere requesting that their right to a secret ballot be withdrawn. Hopefully, on this issue, President Obama will come down on the side of American workers rather than labor union leaders.

Nathan Schwadron, associate professor of astronomy, College of Arts & Sciences
“We must become greater physical innovators to overcome major societal problems.” January 16, 2009

The Obama administration has taken bold steps encouraging a climate of innovation to address economic, energy, sustainability, and competitiveness challenges facing the nation. Massive investments in physical science and technology are difficult given the growing deficit, requiring that we instead create efficiencies by forging new partnerships between industry, universities, and government agencies that can help promote innovation.

Energy, sustainability, and national competitiveness challenges represent significant opportunities for physical science and technology to evolve new products, modes of economic growth, and areas of national excellence. The spirit of innovation must be incorporated as a part of educational initiatives promoting national competitiveness. We have seen a remarkable change over the past year promoting innovation and competitiveness, but these changes need to be cemented to ensure long-term success addressing major national challenges in energy, sustainability, competitiveness, and leadership.

Thomas Nolan (SED91,00), associate professor of applied social sciences and criminal justice, Metropolitan College
“We have empowered law enforcement agents to isolate, target, and oppress populations of underclass youth.” January 20, 2009

As the War on Terror, and various other “wars,” escalate on the domestic front through interdiction, exclusion, and surveillance of the underclass and “otherized” populations who pose “threats,” real or imagined, to our sanctity as a society, the president needs to remain vigilant and steadfast in his safeguarding of our constitutionally protected and guaranteed liberties and protections against unjustifiable government incursions into areas safeguarded by the Constitution. As the ultimate guardian of our liberty, President Obama has done much to reverse the erosion of our constitutional rights perpetrated during the Bush-Cheney regime. He needs the message to resonate: trepidation and xenophobia will not hold us in its clutch and no matter where advances in technology lead us, we need to be wary of surrendering long-held rights and protections in the name of homeland security.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


4 Comments on 2009 Performance Review: Obama, Barack

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2010 at 5:37 am


    Some specific comments…

    Merzbacher: Raise taxes on oil, so people are FORCED to not drive?! Or heat their homes? How do you heat your home???

    Bacevich: Obama FINALLY saw that the war on terror is to be fought in Afghanistan. But our foreign policy is not the same as Bush, and to say that is not being genuine. We have made ourselves appear weak by Obama’s own words and actions, outside of the Afghan theatre.

    Frankel: In a time of crisis like we are in since the terror war began, do we want an idealistic leader or practical one? If you want terrorists living in Amherst Massachusetts or Sudbury, then you are misguided. And if you think we should operate by not trying everything to extract information from the worst of the worst terrorists, then that’s unfortunate.

    El-Baz: Obama is absolutely not looked at in the way you think he is by world leaders. He’s arrogant (look at his Olympics bid speech) and his rush to Boston didn’t do anything to help Coakley, as just two small examples. Iran is more defiant now because they see weakness.

    Schwadron: Good goal. But he spends money well, so not hard to accomplish.

    Nolan: Are these illegal immigrants we are talking about? We are not supposed to enforce our borders?

    With 4000 faculty, you couldn’t find 1 conservative voice?

  • BellaSwan on 01.20.2010 at 9:36 am

    Obama needs to move to the center and quick if he wants to be re-elected to a 2nd term. He can’t keep catering to these ultra-liberals, or he will experience the same backlash that caused Scott Brown to be elected in MA.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2010 at 4:16 pm

    re: Assessment

    To whoever posted the last comment:

    These people were brave enough to provide their opinions about often controversial topics. If you want to engage in a debate with them then I think its only fair for you to also provide your name.

    The fact that Obama supported Coakley and she didn’t get elected says absolutely nothing about how he is looked at by world leaders (if they don’t live in MA, they didn’t not vote in the election). Even if they did vote, you can’t assume that the popularity of a candidate he endorses is a direct reflection on his popularity.

    Also, it would be great if we could get away from conservative vs. liberal. Most of us are really somewhere in between, a polar classification is oversimplified and ignores the issues. No one really understands what it means anyway: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservatism.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2010 at 4:59 pm

    Whoever said Obama needs to move to the center is wrong, DEAD WRONG. Obama’s problem is he moved to the center when being elected by liberals and liberal-leaning independents.

    He ran on a public option, the majority of the public supports a public option; there is no public option.

    Americans don’t want the Democrat to run to the center, why would they elect a “Republican Lite”, if they could just elect a Republican. Dems have to stop thinking that they need to governing like pseudo-Republicans if they want to get reelected.

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