If you paid attention at all during the early days of the 2008 presidential race, you probably remember the buzz about a certain Illinois state senator who had voted “present” 129 times during his tenure there.
At that time, according to National Public Radio (NPR), Illilnois political writer Rich Miller identified State Senator Barack Obama as “the only lawmaker voting ‘present’ on bills winning near unanimous support, even on issues he supported and on one he sponsored.” Chris Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, Springfield (UIS), had observed that, “Illinois lawmakers often vote ‘present’ as part of a larger party or issue bloc strategy,” while Pam Sutherland, the state’s Planned Parenthood CEO, lamented that, “Senators didn’t want to vote pro-choice anymore, because they knew these [votes] were being used against them in their campaigns.”
The New York Times reported that “In at least a few cases, the issue was politically sensitive,” and went on to reveal that there were “at least 36 times when Mr. Obama was either the only state senator to vote present or was part of a group of six or fewer to vote that way.”
“If you are worried about your next election,” said Kent D. Redfield, a Mooney colleague at UIS, “the present vote gives you political cover.”
So, voting “present” was used as a political tactic? By Barack Obama? Imagine that.
(It must be noted that, to his credit, Mr. Obama cast several thousand votes in his 8 years in the Illinois Senate, so 129 “present” votes did not constitute neglect of duty, per se.)
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, the young Obama’s participation in roll call votes during his first 24 months in office was exemplary and an abundance of missed votes in his final year is understandable given his heavy campaign schedule for the presidency. Still, his overall U.S. Senate record of having missed 24% of the roll call votes taken during his mere 2/3 of a term put him among the “worst offenders” in Congress, based on a measurement used on GovTrack.us.
During his two legislative sessions (109th & 110th Congresses, 2005-6, 2007-8), Senator Obama proposed 123 bills, .006% of the 20,874 total bills introduced during those sessions. Although more than half of those 123 were introduced while his party held the majority on all Senate committees, only 6 (5%) of his proposals advanced to the full floor of the Senate for open debate and only 2 (1.6%) became law, ironically including the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which established a web search engine to trace recipients of federal spending.
These figures represent a puny legislative record of leadership under any circumstance.
It can reasonably be suggested, then, that this president’s chief achievement in public governance prior to his election as president may have been the rousing 17-minute speech he gave to the 2004 Democratic National Convention — the moment in which a nationally obscure but articulate, intelligent and attractive Chicago community organizer established a following for himself that eventually led him to the leadership of the free world.
What does all of this mean today?
One could argue that, taken as a whole, these data demonstrate that Barack Obama has always been reluctant to reveal, let alone debate, his own ideas, remedies and direction and to take the political risks leadership demands. Having run a campaign proclaiming new values, a uniting vision for the globe, much needed across-the-aisle diplomacy and a firm promise of hope and change, candidate Obama may have said the words that thrilled voters’ hearts but he entered office with a dismal track record of actually engaging in the competitive marketplace of effective policy solutions.
True to past form, this “leader,” it turns out, apparently prefers to sidestep legislative debate of his proposals. Two-plus years as visionary-in-chief and the signing of numerous contentious bills indicate that he is, instead, inclined to maneuver in secret in order to push his ideas directly into law with little or no public debate. (Consider the bullying “closed door” strategy the Democratic super-majority used to rush the admittedly unread 2,000+ page “Obamacare” bill through the sacrosanct “advise and consent” process.)
That doesn’t appear to be what most Americans were thinking when they elected him based on his oft-repeated promise of refreshingly open policy debates.
Obama’s legislative record likewise explains — at least in part — why, despite his remarkably compelling rhetorical skills, he seems determined to resist exposing his beliefs, priorities and “phantom” plans to public scrutiny for fear that doing so will cost him votes in 2012. His consistent refusal to publicly engage in specific policy initiation and refinement, as opposed to policy critique, amounts to an abdication of presidential leadership that few of us could have imagined.
A troubling problem for this nation and its longstanding electoral tradition is that the clever Mr. Obama appears willing to gamble that his strategy of non-leadership will likely win re-election in today’s largely inattentive and apathetic society. Amazingly, he may be right (which begs the question as to who is most to blame for our current state – him or us?).
For Bible believers, scripture counsels us that “A nation will fall when there is no direction, but with many advisers there is victory” (Proverbs 11:14). Some ancient language scholars render the setting of that proverb as “when there is no governor [one willing to govern],” suggesting that during times in which bold leadership is essentially forfeited, a functioning culture declines and dysfunction is destined to increase. Such nations are destined to become, in these scholars’ view, “like a ship without a pilot, or without a helm, or one to steer it.”
This president seems determined to delegate his constitutional obligation to lead to unelected advisors, unqualified appointees or non-executive legislators. It’s a very dangerous turnabout, especially when you consider that, as voters, we never realized (in 2008) that we were, in essence, selecting men and women who would eventually role-share the presidency. Had we known that, we may have chosen them based on a different set of criteria.
Sadly, for all of the above reasons it is now all too clear that this particular president might more aptly be referred to as “Present Obama.”