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State Of His Union

President Obama will tell us tonight how he thinks our country is doing. We can make our own judgments about how our president is doing.

Though January has been a difficult month for Obama, with the loss of the Democrats’ filibuster-proof Senate majority and the collapse of his health care initiative, his first year in office has been more of a mixed bag. True, his economic stimulus did little to stimulate, he plunged the government more deeply into private industry than it has been in decades, he piled trillions onto the national debt, and his all-consuming focus on health care, in the end, was a bust (despite anything Obama may say tonight, we can safely assume that significant health care reform is dead until at least the next Congress).

But in three areas — the recovery of the financial system, the beginnings of a new economic expansion, and the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — Obama fostered, or at least managed not to derail, improvements that were already in progress when he took office.

Expectations were unrealistically high when Obama was sworn in as the 44th president. It is always tough to translate campaign slogans into real policies. This is especially so when the slogans boil down to the words “hope” and “change,” which can mean anything to anyone. While Obama’s intellect and willingness to roll up his sleeves were a welcome improvement over his predecessor’s tendency to veer between emotion and indifference, Obama was bound to disappoint people, including supporters who heard what they wanted to hear in his vague oratory.

New presidents always need on-the-job training. Mistakes are part of the process. That could help explain why Obama’s Justice Department filed a loathsome brief last spring in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, which analogized same-sex marriage to marriages involving close relatives or juveniles. Or why it took him days to publicly acknowledge that the unsuccessful Dec. 25 attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner was not evidence that “the system worked,” as his homeland security secretary had asserted.

On the other hand, becoming president is not a license to become a bully. Recent presidents from Ronald Reagan through Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have all been highly partisan. They minced no words in describing the policies and motives of their political foes. But when did they level personal attacks at private citizens who were merely doing their jobs or exercising their rights?

Obama has done this repeatedly. He joined the political lynch mob that denounced AIG and other financial firms’ employees for collecting “outrageous” bonuses to which they were contractually entitled. He vilified as “speculators” creditors who asserted their rights to be paid what they were owed when those rights got in the way of his reorganization of Chrysler. The man who titled his own book “The Audacity of Hope” attacked the “audacity” of bankers who dared to oppose his proposal for a special tax targeting large banks. And let us not forget his depiction of “fat cat bankers on Wall Street” who are unworthy of his help unless they step up lending to small business — notwithstanding his own administration’s pressure on those bankers to weigh risks more carefully.

There is a pattern here. If you do not willingly do what this president thinks you should do, even if you have legal rights or good reasons to do otherwise, he calls you nasty names on national television. It is an unpresidential habit.

Bullies tend to be cowards. While it may not be fair to attach that label to Obama at this point, he shows a disconcerting tendency to lead from the rear. Health care is an excellent example. He spent most of the past year urging Congress to pass a reform plan that he refused to describe in any detail. He was for the controversial public option, except when he wasn’t. He made Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi play “Deal or No Deal?” in a desperate effort to round up votes, and then decried the “ugly process” on Capitol Hill.

Speaking of Capitol Hill, I suspect Obama is rapidly wearing out his welcome there. Comments about an ugly legislative process cannot endear him to fellow Democrats. Keep in mind that this man ran for president after just two years in the Illinois Legislature and two more in the U.S. Senate. His own record of legislative accomplishment is approximately zero.

On top of that, his party is in line to take a dreadful beating in November, which is going to cost a lot of people their careers. Obama’s own former Senate seat is vulnerable to Republicans, and so is the seat that Vice President Joe Biden held for three decades. This week, Biden’s son Beau Biden decided he would rather remain Delaware’s attorney general than take a chance on trying to succeed his father. Democrats who clamored for a place within Obama’s warm post-inaugural glow a year ago are going to be keeping a healthy distance from him now.

Obama may see himself as a man on a mission for his country, but he is skating perilously close to being seen as a man on a mission for himself. He did not build a lot of bridges in his first year in office.

Tonight, the president is likely to tell us that our country has many problems and great challenges to confront if it is to reach its potential. Success is going to require cooperation, compromise and respect for different points of view. It is not clear that this is going to happen.

Much the same could be said of the Obama presidency. It has not been all bad, but so far, it has been pretty ugly.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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