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Obama's 'unpredictable streak' showing
Scripps Howard News Service


April 02, 2010

WASHINGTON - The other day President Barack Obama defied environmentalists by giving permission for new oil and gas drilling off U.S. coasts, after a decades-long moratorium. It was a thrilling moment.

Not because drilling is necessarily a good thing -- it can be good or bad depending on where it's done, why it's done, if jobs are created and what environmental controls are in place. And it's often been bad.

No, Obama's decision was a good thing because it shows Obama has an unpredictable streak. As a candidate, he opposed drilling off U.S. coasts. A year ago he blocked plans put in place at the last minute by the Bush administration to permit offshore drilling and to open the national outer continental shelf for drilling.

jpg Obama offshore drilling plan

Obama offshore drilling plan
By John Cole, The Scranton Times-Tribune
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Cagle Cartoons, Inc.

If more politicians were unpredictable, this would be a better democracy. There would be less rancorous partisanship and more people would debate the issues on their merits rather than engaging in knee-jerk conservatism or liberalism. Lobbyists might have a harder time buying votes.

President George H.W. Bush lost the White House when he decided that his famous "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge was no longer serving the country well.

President Ronald Reagan went against GOP theology when he decided it was time to make peace with the Soviet Union.

President Bill Clinton decided he had to make a stand for welfare reform, even though his own wife begged him not to do it, saying it was a mistake.

President Richard Nixon defied his party ideology by overseeing the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and by going to China.

Even the nation's first beloved president, George Washington, brought on a national torrent of anger against himself -- the possibilities of impeachment and even death were raised -- by negotiating a secret treaty to avert a second war with Great Britain during his presidency, a war the fledgling new republic could not have won.

It's interesting that as presidents adjust to office, they are filled with curiosity about their predecessors and how they handled their challenges and political ups-and-downs.

We don't yet know how the new health care legislation will play out, but a reinvigorated, newly emboldened Obama is already trying to figure out how to get his other objectives passed.

Those include such challenges as financial reform and dealing with institutions that are "too big to fail," climate change legislation, pushing for the creation of new jobs, dealing with gays in the military, reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind education law, changing the Supreme Court decision that lets corporations give as much money as they want to political candidates, closing Guantanamo, improving the outlook on the ever-expanding national debt and annual deficits and dealing with the explosive growth of illegal immigrants.

Trying to figure out strategy, Obama is said to be interested in learning more about how John F. Kennedy set the stage for the civil rights legislation and how Lyndon Johnson pushed it through Congress.

Unfortunately, history tells us that a president usually has only a few opportunities during his brief term in office to make a significant difference for his country.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss says that John F. Kennedy "feared that the changing political environment was making it more difficult for Americans to practice the kind of leadership that had shaped our past." Kennedy meant that politics had become too expensive, mechanized and "dominated by professional politicians and public relations men."

Certainly, Kennedy would be astonished to see how all that is even more true today in age where news is 24/7, when the Internet is a factor in every decision, when polling is done daily but when results can change in an instant and when political consultants are paid fortunes to determine outcomes.

But throughout our storm-tossed history, it is clear that in every era, despite the overwhelming nature of the challenge, presidential courage -- the willingness to do the unexpected and the difficult and to do the right thing no matter what the cost -- is at the heart of change.


Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)

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