Written for the Huffington Post, published October 31, 2012:
It felt almost as surreal as it did cold.
I was a shivering, wonderstruck ninth grader. He was just minutes into his turn at the helm of the world’s most powerful engine. Between us were a cement barrier, a military guard, and an armored limousine wall. As the sirens whined, I waved, then he waved back. And then he was gone.
Minutes earlier, I had been on my tip toes, trying to steal a glimpse of the man himself, but my eyesight was too weak, and the podium was obscured among clusters of naked trees. I had laid my feet flat and settled for the megatron.
Now, as the inauguration parade began, I stood on Pennsylvania Avenue and made eye contact with the President of the United States. My innumerable thoughts were drowned out by the cheering thousands behind me and beside me. I had just seen Barack Obama take the oath of office. Now he was looking at me.
I was blissfully unaware. He knew that the celebration would be short.
Nearly four years later, his critics’ words are a thunderclap: “He hasn’t done enough.”
They’re right. It would be irresponsible to claim that President Obama should be reelected exclusively on the merits of what he has accomplished. It seems without doubt that he has not achieved nearly enough; so speak the fractured limbs of a nation still in pain.
But on issue after issue, the Obama administration has moved in the direction of progress, even if it hasn’t yet attained exhaustive success. It is the collection of alternatives — the terrifying nature of what could have been, and what could still be — that amount to a ringing endorsement of President Obama for another term.
Under the belief that Obama should have treaded further on the issues he has undertaken — that he hasn’t done “enough” — it would be counterintuitive for us to veer sharply toward a radical alternative. Progress unfinished is but a puddle of futile hope. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.
Some issues on which Obama has made real headway seem only spoken about in hushed murmurs, eclipsed by Washington’s hyperbole-prone discussion of the favored children of the media — the issues that take up airtime. We are best served not by shouting about how the president has spent money (indeed, he has — and lots of it), but by assessing where and on what he has spent it.
Take, for example, the environmental realm. Experts across the board agree that the president’s deepest failure in the area took the form of a cap-and-trade bill that, had it passed, would have cut the nation’s carbon footprint by 80 percent by 2050. The bill ultimately disappeared in the congressional inferno.
Scarred by legislative burn-marks, President Obama felt the sting of his mistakes. He swiftly issued (by executive order) what the Washington Post recently called “the most sweeping attack on air pollution in U.S. history,” placing severe limitations on the production of toxic gasses. Some have grumbled that these regulations immobilize the coal industry. For those in the sustainability sector, such a truth is a far cry from tragedy.
Perhaps this administration’s pinnacle environmental accomplishment is its groundbreaking fuel-efficiency rule: by 2016, all new cars will be required to average 35.5 miles to the gallon. The rule will cut back on 1.3 million barrels of oil each day and reduce carbon emissions by hundreds of millions of tons.
Bill Maher — comedian by name and social commentator by practice — noted last week a paradigmatic shift from the fantasyland of the Bush years to a sobering new reality. “Before Obama got in (to office) the Smithsonian couldn’t mention global warming as a possible reason the glaciers were shrinking.” By merely acknowledging certain truths, President Obama has restored the nation’s standing as the world’s top investor renewable energy.
Despite his reforms, however, President Obama’s work isn’t yet adequate. And now, the House Republican budget — supported in full by its proud architect, Paul Ryan — outlines cuts topping $897 billion, many of which will uproot the seeds of sustainability that Obama has planted and spoil the fruit that his constituents have borne. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.
The thirst for more doesn’t end at the ozone layer. Examine the changes in the classroom that the last three and a half years have seen.
The stimulus package took effect at the recession’s apex. Most of its funds appropriated toward education were spent on ensuring that teachers kept their jobs. Since that initial groundwork legislation, however, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been met with exceptional success in driving the translation of their own policies into state ones.
In the process, the president has taken a page from the Republican playbook and painted his education initiatives in a laissez-faire glaze. The Race to the Top initiative has invited states to compete for a limited sum of money, which has been awarded to the legislatures who most thoroughly employ administration education policies — implementing merit pay for teachers, building data systems to track student progress, and the like.
The tactic has worked: Upwards of thirty states have actually altered their education platforms to heighten their grant prospects.
But Obama’s most assertive push has been his fight against Bush-era education policies. The administration has exempted 33 states from the laws of No Child Left Behind. The states who qualified for exemptions did so by proactively seeking out ways to sidestep NCLB’s über-idealistic requirement that every student perform at least grade-level work in English and math studies by 2014.
Again, a noble effort. Again, insufficient. The vast majority of Obama education policies are blueprints — semi-complete plans for full implementation in the coming years. In a February GOP primary debate, Mitt Romney was emphatic in declaring that “we need get the federal government out of education.” He has echoed such sentiments deep into the general election season. But the only avenue through which states can legally forgo unhealthy NCLB practices is federal government action — precisely the kind that the President Obama has begun to take. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.
Was my optimism on that frigid inauguration day for naught? The morning had begun as my dad and I sprinted through the streets of Arlington to catch the 4:30 am subway car that would take us — at a bumpy, rhythmic adagio — to Capitol Hill. We had stood in line for five hours, watching the sun rise over the Mall, wondering if perhaps our president-elect was doing the same. The symbolism didn’t escape us.
Indeed, we have been awakened to the limitations of “hope and change.” The environmental and education issues I present are simply a case study representative of the phases of forward movement. But the progress we’ve made rings hollow if we halt it abruptly. President Obama hasn’t yet done enough; I’m opting to let him finish what he’s started.
The sun is peaking out. Let it rise.