Grading the first year: Blame the system, not Obama

Tara McMahon

Barack Obama began his presidency with historically high approval ratings. One year after his inauguration, he is now experiencing historically low approval ratings. But are these numbers more indicative of Obama’s performance as president or of the public’s expectations? On the surface, these two things might appear codependent — isn’t the basic nature of such polls to measure the public approval of the president’s performance? While this is true, sometimes we put too much emphasis on public approval without really considering the obligations of the executive office.

My purpose is not to defend the actions, agendas or accomplishments of the current president; but I will defend the institution of the presidency. In today’s age of constant media coverage and instant gratification, our society expects the government to work at rapid speed. However, that is not the nature of the American government. The Constitution established a complex relationship between the legislative and executive branches that our society has seemed to overlook.

Regardless of the politics behind the healthcare debate, I commend the role Obama played in writing the  now infamous healthcare bill. There was criticism that he took a hands-off approach to the bill. Let us keep in mind, the president is not constitutionally responsible for drafting legislation; that is the job of Congress. When we start to expect the president to rule the nation through executive orders (such as the failed order to close the Guantanamo Bay facility) we begin to undermine the original intentions of the Constitution. When the public has expectations for the president outside his realm of constitutional authority, the nation will start to resemble a system of dictatorship, socialism, fascism or any of the other phrases Americans use to spark political fear. The Founding Fathers worked to create a governing system that promoted political stability, not social change. And although President Obama’s eloquent campaign message promised change we could believe it, we must first consider the nature of our government before criticizing Obama’s first year in office.

The recent Massachusetts special Senate election has been referred to as a referendum on Obama’s first year. We cannot disregard the significance of a notably liberal state electing a Republican — one that is not only filling the seat of the late Ted Kennedy, but is now also the only Republican representing Massachusetts in Congress. And yes, the implications of this election do seem to suggest that the election in November will result in the Republican party gaining seats in Congress. However, we must keep in mind that historically, when the president’s party holds the majority in Congress, that party typically suffers losses in the first midterm election. So if the Republican party gains Congressional seats in November, it will not only be expected but also consistent with historical trends.

While it might sound crazy, electing more Republicans into office in November might be the only way to accomplish any real change. Currently, the Republican party has no incentive to cooperate or compromise as long as they are in the minority. And on the other hand, the distinct Democratic majority has left that party fractionalized and unable to achieve an actual consensus. So despite the fact that the Democrats currently have the majority power in the House, the Senate and the Presidency, internal fractionalization combined with the lack of incentive for Republicans to compromise, has left the Congress in a stalemate. Regardless of my personal political affiliations, I feel that minimizing the gap between the two parties in Congress will increase the ability to pass legislation. And I believe that Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike can agree that progress is better than no change at all.

Civics lesson aside, the nation learned an important lesson with Obama’s campaign. Change is possible, but only when people are involved in the political process. This means that we must stay informed about American politics — our generation especially needs to watch the news, vote in midterm elections, volunteer with local campaigns. Elected officials cater to the needs of the people whose support they can count on in elections. And the youth demographic has never been considered consistent in election support.  Until we become involved and stay involved in politics, our generation will never see the change we want.