If anyone thought that American political scene would suddenly become boring or ordinary after the departure of George Bush, they were sorely mistaken. Indeed, even before the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, it became clear that while Change may have been Obama's campaign moto, it certainly is not what we have witnessed in the American political culture. In fact, scandals and sensations - large and small - have been filling the front pages of newspapers including a governor who tried to sell Obama’s senate seat and several cabinet nominees who forgot to pay their taxes - particularly embarrassing given that one of them was nominated (and eventually confirmed) to be the Treasury Secretary - the head of the agency responsible for the collection of taxes.
Admittedly, while these scandals make for good gossip, they do not necessary say much about the Obama presidency as such. Mishaps and misbehaviors always happen and Obama cannot control everything. So what can we conclude from the moves that he has taken so far, that were solely in his control? Change is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Those who voted for Obama as a clear-cut alternative to Clinton and as a candidate who wants to move away from the "politics of the past" were astonished to find out that a good portion of his appointments were in their past affiliated with the Clinton administration. Thus, a new pro-Obama narrative developed: it wasn't necessarily the people that would change but rather the substance and the style of the presidency. What else was he going to do anyway – beam a whole new Democratic party in from space?
So how about that substance and style? One might highlight Obama's early steps after the inauguration as signs of a new era in Washington. First, he introduced ethics guidelines that would shut the revolving door between government and industry by placing restrictions preventing those with a lobbying record from working in the government – and vice versa. Surely a bold step - at least until it became clear that Obama reserved the right for exceptions: Deputy Defense secretary nominee William Lynn used to be a lobbyist for Raytheon, a military contractor, and the Health and Human Services secretary nominee Tom Daschle - while not technically registered as a lobbyist - has earned large amounts of money from companies in health care - an industry he was tapped to regulate and reform. Speaking of ethics, nominating cabinet members with questionable tax records didn’t seem particularly kosher either, yet Obama fully stood behind them.
Another immediate move during the first few days in office was to make good on his campaign promises and shut down Guantanamo Bay - a symbolic move to end the questionable extrajudicial practices perpetrated by the Bush administration. It did not take long before it came under criticism as being a bit too symbolic: he delayed the closing of Guantanamo for a year and seemingly left open the door to extraordinary renditions - the practice of apprehending and transferring suspects to other countries. Even more important to many critics of torture was that Obama has shown little interest in prosecuting or even investigating the activities of the last administration. In short, instead of true groundbreaking steps, it seems that the few moves that Obama has made so far have come off as somewhat half-hearted and unconvincing.
As substance and style of presidency goes, one of the key aspects of Obama's vision during the campaign was post-partisan politics - putting aside differences and working toward mutually agreeable goals. There was probably no better way to test this lofty goal than to attempt to pass a trillion-dollar stimulus package to revive the US economy. It must have been disheartening to the new president when, despite his best effort, not a single republican voted for the stimulus bill in the House of Representatives. Clearly, Obama's attempt at bipartisanship has resulted in nothing of the sort. If anything, it has shown that the legislative process is inherently partisan and expecting anything else is not realistic.
All these instances of words speaking louder than actions – ethics, Guantanamo, bipartisanship - seem to have one important element in common: reality. The problem with implementing a lot of these goals is that, sooner or later, one is bound to run into complications: that really qualified guy he really wanted to hire who used to be a lobbyist (and forgot to pay some taxes); those prisoners some of which are probably terrorists yet we have no idea how and where to prosecute them; the Republican party he wants to work with amicably that has no incentive to cooperate with him. Suddenly a lofty goal becomes an obstacle, something that needs to be circumvented or exempted from. And that, in short, is how ideals seemingly die in Washington.
And so, three weeks into the age of Obama, Hope, another slogan from Obama campaign, is certainly running high: according to the New York Times/CBS News poll, 79% of respondents were optimistic about what the new president can accomplish, higher than any of the previous five presidents at the outset of their time in office. Change, however, even with the best of intentions, has so far been quite elusive. With plenty of time left in his presidency, it would be premature to declare Obama's mission a failure, but it will be interesting to observe how the reality of governing will temper his ability to deliver on his idealistic promises, or even his appetite to do so. In the meantime, it seems like we will have to settle for Change Light.