Jonathan Alter: Five myths about Barack Obama

January 20th, 2012

The Washington Post Opinions
By Jonathan Alter
Jan. 20, 2012

Barack Obama’s rise in politics was so rapid, and his background so unusual, that he was immediately subjected to malicious myths — from the bogus story that he was raised Muslim to the lie that he wasn’t born in the United States. Of course, some of the raps on Obama are valid interpretations of his performance. It’s not a myth that he was long distracted from job creation, that his foreclosure policies have failed or that he was outfoxed by Republicans for much of 2011. But as Obama prepares to defend his record Tuesday in the State of the Union address, let’s dispense with some genuine misconceptions about his presidency.

1. Obama is a socialist.

This myth began with a 2008 campaign stop in Ohio, when then-Sen. Obama was caught on tape telling Joe Wurzelbacher (“Joe the Plumber”) that we needed to “spread the wealth around.” Sen. John McCain said that “sounded a lot like socialism” and cited the quote often during the campaign.

Conservatives have echoed the charge throughout Obama’s presidency. Writing in Commentary magazine in 2010, Jonah Goldberg accused him of aiming to “nationalize” two auto companies, stage a “partial government takeover” of health care and seize “managerial control” of Wall Street.

But none of this is true. By temporarily putting major banks under government control, the TARP bailout contained socialist elements — but that didn’t make Obama any more of a socialist than then-President George W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who launched the rescue. Obama rejected nationalizing banks and made clear that he had no interest in running the auto companies receiving TARP money.

The president’s health-care reform law keeps insurance in private hands, adopts the “individual mandate” concept from the conservative Heritage Foundation and is modeled in part on former governor Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts reform — not exactly a “Bolshevik plot,” as Obama put it. Finally, the Dodd-Frank reform bill, which Obama signed into law in 2010, regulates Wall Street but hardly controls it.

2. Obama is a tool of Wall Street.

It’s true that the president bailed out banks and let their executives resume making millions without using the leverage he had in early 2009 to restructure financial institutions and hold them accountable for wrecking the economy. He also hired Clinton-era retreads such as Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, despite their roles in the 1990s deregulatory policiesthat helped create the crisis.

However, there’s no evidence that the president did these things because he was beholden to Wall Street. Obama genuinely believed that closing banks would worsen the crisis and cost as much as $1 trillion in further bailouts. Time has proved Geithner’s “stress tests” to be smart policy; they stabilized banks and allowed almost all of the TARP money to be repaid. In the meantime, Obama fought for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, pushed the “Buffett rule” to prevent fund managers and other top earners from paying lower tax rates than ordinary Americans, and backed a 5 percent tax surcharge on millionaires.

In his reelection bid, Obama is not nearly as dependent on Wall Street money as past Democratic and Republican nominees. He has raised about $30 million from 100 Wall Street bundlers, but the bulk of his campaign money has come from more than 1 million contributors averaging less than $100 each.

3. Obama is an effective public speaker.

Obama’s lofty speeches during the 2008 campaign led even his detractors to admit that he is a gifted orator. Some critics try to minimize his skill by saying he relies on a teleprompter — a ridiculous charge considering that he often writes big chunks of his speeches and often speaks off-the-cuff.

That said, there are few examples of Obama’s speeches actually moving popular opinion. That’s because he speaks in impressive paragraphs, not memorable sentences. He is allergic to sound bites, and that keeps him from effectively framing his goals and achievements.

The roots of this allergy may lie in his famous Philadelphia speech on race in 2008, which followed the revelations of incendiary comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The speech lacked memorable lines, but it was a big hit. I believe it convinced Obama that the public could absorb complex ideas without bumper sticker lines. He was wrong.

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