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Stiehm: Obama and Biden: Style vs. substance

By Jamie Stiehm - | May 30, 2024

Jamie Stiehm

In a glass pavilion, the tables sparkled, set for 500 guests at the White House state dinner for Kenyan President William Ruto.

A guest of Kenyan descent didn’t stay for dinner, President Joe Biden announced.

“One just left: Barack,” Biden noted. Washington lore says former President Barack Obama ducks listening to other people’s speeches.

Obama had better things to do? Wow.

Cool and elegant in a rare sighting, perhaps Obama felt he was slumming with “folks.” Besides, the yellow legal pad pages of his memoir were calling.

That revealing exit is rude to the Bidens, the Clintons, all at the gathering.

Obama leaving the party early recalls his leaving another party early: his Democratic political party.

Remember, he campaigned half-heartedly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and arguably caused her defeat by naming James Comey FBI director. (Comey denounced Clinton twice while finding nothing about her to investigate.)

Obama is not making up for this colossal blunder.

He’s campaigning half-heartedly for Biden, too.

Hello, Barack? Put down the pad and go on the stump for five months to save the country from the tyrannical former President Donald Trump whom you helped elect by assuming “Hillary will win anyway.”

Now hear this startling dispatch: In the fourth year of Biden’s presidency, he’s been a better president than Obama was in eight.

Yes, for all his talent, those who studied his years in office and post-presidency find Obama a disappointment.

Obama talked the talk, but Biden walks the walk. Truly, he’s no ordinary Joe.

Obama had a lackluster second term on the home front. He didn’t stand up to Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, who balked at holding hearings for a Supreme Court nominee.

(“Hillary’s going to win anyway.”)

When you’re president, you must flex your political muscle against a recalcitrant senator. Believe me, Lyndon Johnson would have roared. McConnell may have marveled at how easy it was to defy the president.

But as we Washingtonians came to see, Obama disdained dealing with Congress and did that as little as possible. He seldom invited House Democrats over to socialize, and even after they saved the Affordable Care Act, he did not campaign for them in 2010’s brutal Tea Party elections.

Bad form. Politics is no solo sport.

In his first term, his signature legacy, “Obamacare,” had an arduous passage because for months Obama thought he could charm or melt former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). In the end, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi jammed it through the House, and the Senate passed it without one Republican vote.

Liberals like me rejoiced at voting for the first Black president. But the record speaks of missed chances, what Obama didn’t do, more than what he did.

In the beginning, Obama failed to enshrine legal abortion, Roe v. Wade, into law like he promised he would. (Thanks.)

Obama didn’t close Guantanamo Bay, the dark island jail. He pressed ahead on former President George W. Bush’s long wars of aggression. He took no meaningful action on climate change, a lost step in time that environmental experts bemoan.

Wall Street firms responsible for the Great Recession never faced a court of law. The president did not call them out in a public rebuke. The meager government bailout led to a “jobless recovery.”

In his second term, besides the lost Court seat, aloof Obama lost close congressional votes on immigration and gun safety (after the Sandy Hook school shooting).

A president must win close votes and bring their power to bear. Former President Bill Clinton won the deficit reduction bill in a 50-50 tiebreaker vote because he personally phoned, shouted at and bargained with the holdouts.

The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy were supposed to sunset early on Obama’s watch, but he extended them.

Biden often works with Congress. He cherishes his old Senate club. That shows up in strong results on climate change, prescription drug costs, infrastructure and pandemic recovery bills. The economy is roaring.

Obama’s superb Secretary of State John Kerry (second choice after Susan Rice) achieved the Paris Accords on climate and the Iran nuclear deal. Trump then tore up America’s chief diplomatic victories of the Obama era.

That leaves the charismatic young president with little to write home about. His legal pad writing will weave and tell tall tales with more style than substance.

The author may be reached at JamieStiehm.com.


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