The Ownership Debate Lorenzo Bruscagli, University of Florence Student, International Relations La Pietra Dialogues
December 15, 2009
What I took away from The Obama Administration: An Early Assessment conference is the sense that Americans (and Europeans) have exhaled a sigh of relief for the end of the Bush era. Supporters of President Obama are still riding the tidal wave of enthusiasm from the presidential campaign after his first year in office. However, as Alex Castellanos pointed out, President Obama inherited a host of issues that weigh heavily on the political debate. In order for the U.S. to move forward, Obama needs, according to Stephanie Cutter, to become progressively independent of the stigma of the Bush years and to start to “own” the issues.
What does it mean to “own” an issue? In simple terms it means to not point to the past as an excuse for present difficulties. This would be helpful for both the Administration and the Republican Party: allowing the former to stand on its own legs, and releasing the later from responsibility for current problems. But what it means at a deeper level is to take full responsibility for the issues, irrespective of the past. All panelists seemed to agree that the Obama Presidency must act authoritatively, but, I wondered, is it really responsible to ignore the past ? Obama has made bipartisanship a hallmark of his political style. He has demonstrated, with his restraint during the campaign, his health care reform compromises, and the beer summit, that he tries to avoid making divisive choices. But in debates surrounding the economic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling past decisions into question is, in my opinion, the responsible way to assess what has happened and, consequently, what can happen, and this is true regardless of the political consequences for a particular political party. There was a sense of urgency among Democrats on the panel that Obama needs to prove that he can stand on his own merits to voters and that he has not been voted in simply as a negative reaction to Bush. However, he seems to have taken ‘ownership’ of issues like the Iraq War and Guantanamo, rarely if ever mentioning his predecessor, but, surprisingly, has not been more decisive on some of his own signature issues like the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and, especially, health care reform, disappointing many democrats. Stan Greenberg and Adam Nagourney both agreed that in a few years we might look back on 2009 and realize that it was one of the most active first years in history and that the administration’s accomplishments have been underestimated because there were such high expectations.
The Dialogue achieved its goal of providing a complex evaluation of this past controversial year. I was most impressed by the gracious manner in which all sides discussed these delicate issues. As an Italian, I can only hope that there could be such civility in the current Italian arena as well.