Obama Year One: Reality Bites

A year has gone by since President Obama took the oath of office. After the extremes of the George Bush years and the unimpressive McCain-Sarah Palin campaign, Obama seemed like a breath of much-needed fresh air.  With a clever Internet savvy campaign, Obama positioned himself as the right transformational candidate to repair the  endless damage caused by Bush and his team. Despite being relatively unknown, he ran a truly inspirational campaign that captured the imagination of many, especially the young. One year into his presidency, much of that momentum appears to have been lost and many of his ardent supporters have reason to feel disappointed. True, he was dealt the most difficult challenges in recent times. But his approach and accomplishments to-date leave much to be desired and are quite inconsistent with the promise his campaign displayed.

While there are a host of issues on which to evaluate his performance, three of them are particularly insightful: the financial crisis, the Afghan War, and the Healthcare battle. There is no doubt that President Obama inherited a financial mess. A year later — with unemployment at over 10%  – Main Street is hurting, Wall Street is happier with a healthy Dow/Nasdaq and “fat-cat bankers” are once again receiving hefty bonuses. Several experts feel/felt that the stimulus wasn’t exactly sufficient and that the response to the crisis wasn’t exactly “bold enough.” The jury is still out on his response to the the financial mess, though in large part it is by and large a continuation of the policies that President Bush set in motion.

The biggest decision he has made so far is the one to expand the Afghan war effort. While he did say during the campaign that the Afghan war was the “right war,” most people (especially those on the left) believed (or hoped!) that President Obama was opposed to war in general. Unfortunately, after four months of analysis-paralysis (or dithering as Cheney called it), he arrived at the exact same conclusion as the Bush-Cheney team and chose to expand troops, the drone attacks, etc. To top it off, there is complete ambiguity regarding whether the troops would withdraw after 18 months from Afghanistan. Once again, a lost opportunity to make a bold break from the policies of the Bush era.

A President who was deeply opposed to war should have called in his generals on day one and told them without mincing words that he was personally opposed to the war and  convinced them of his rationale.  Asking a general if he wanted more troops is like asking a senior VP at IBM if he wanted more resources to continue to pursue his  next generation project which was already  well over budget, was still understaffed, and unlikely to deliver a successful product. Of course the generals don’t like to accept anything that even remotely smells of defeat. Certainly they are going to ask for a troop expansion!  In fact, General McCrystal went a step further and got away with a premature public pronouncement about the need for 40,000 additional troops. It was a pre-emptive strike against an inexperienced President.

It appears as though President Obama agonized over the decision for four months because he was deeply conscious of the negative implications of war and the weight of the responsibility that comes with such a decision given the potential deaths of young Americans. He had to weigh this against his assessment of the political implications of a withdrawal. With  the nation deeply divided , the Congressional elections looming on the horizon, and the fear that Democrats would once again be labeled as “weak on national defense” President Obama caved in to his generals’ requests, dumped his widely believed left leanings and embraced what he suspected would move him “safely” to the political center. On this issue, clearly President Obama’s political instincts got the better of his perceived ideology. Furthermore, he failed to make a convincing case for why the effort in Afghanistan should be persisted with. His “evil in the world” rhetoric sounded more like George Bush minus the conviction.

The Healthcare battle on the other hand is more stark. The President came into this clearly signifying that he was strongly in favor of universal healthcare. But the devil is in the details as always. When it came down to the contentious issue of the public option, the winds of ambiguity began to take over as is  fast becoming the norm with this administration. Is he for the public option? Will he sign if there is no public option? Does he care enough for the public option to push for it? With the recent senate defeat in MA, the healthcare bill appears to be in jeopardy with no end in sight.

A big part of being a good administrator is to prioritize and be selective about what to pursue, estimate how long something might take, and then execute effectively. On all  these three fronts he has clearly faltered in his first year in office. He first promised a healthcare bill in summer of 2009 and then before last Christmas, and now  it  is completely open ended – a sign that his administrative experience is still unproven and questionable. (closure of Guantanamo being another example).

Despite all his shortcomings and the difficulties facing the country, President Obama still appears to be the right man for the job, especially when compared to the other aspirants for the presidency. He continues to seem like a “cool guy” whose heart is in the right place.  His speeches – the language, the delivery, the style – are easily one of the best (since Bill Clinton) in recent times in American politics. His genuine and consistent attempt to reach out to the Muslim world (referred to as the “apology tour” by the GOP) has helped the world see America a little more favorably today than it did in the Bush-Cheney years. He seems to care deeply about societal inequalities and clearly aspires to do something about it. His first year in office confirms that he is a shrewd politician who knows how to gain power (time will tell if he knows how to retain it), but isn’t very good at using it (unlike his predecessor),  in spite of a Democratic majority in Congress.

Unlike Bush, Obama does not evoke extreme emotions, partly because of his ambiguity on various issues. He is so guarded (he used a teleprompter when addressing 6 year olds!) that even the late night comics seldom find material to joke about him. Despite the accusations of his critics on the right, he does not appear to have a strong ideological bias, enough to  make dramatic shifts in policy.  In fact, given a chance,  I suspect President Obama would prefer not to have an opinion on any issue (as is consistent with his voting record in the Illinois senate).  For the rest of his term, he needs  to overcome the apparent lack of boldness, sharpen his administrative skills and  clear the pervading air of ambiguity that has been a consistent phenomenon of his first year in office. After having rallied the country around cries of “yes we can” he needs to show us how he actually can over the next three years.


Movie Review: 3 Idiots

Title: 3 Idiots

Starring: Aamir Khan, Madhavan, Kareena Kapoor

Language: Hindi

This a story of three friends who meet at an Engineering college. Aamir Khan, Madhavan and Sharman Joshi play the three friends while Kareena Kapoor as the heroine and Boman Irani as the heroine’s Dad and college Principal comprise the rest of key star cast.

The Director of the film, Raju Hirani (of Munnabhai fame) clearly has a great flair for comedy and always manages to blend “messages” into his films. There is plenty to laugh right through the film plus there is a lot of criticism of the education system in India and associated advice/messages for all involved, all cleverly blended into the script.  Its almost as if the movie makers  set out to see the comic side of almost every scene in the film. The scenes where the friends meet each others families, the NRI student (a slightly exaggerated caricature) and his speech (where chamatkar turns into balatkar), the Principal and his idiosyncrasies  form some of the many outrageously funny sequences.  The quality of the humor  is a of a better standard than that  of the Munnabhai films simply because the theme of this story is one which most people (especially  those who have lived in hostel) can relate to.  So the comedy comes as across as that much more believable. As in most Bollywood films there is plenty of exaggeration in this film too.  Nevertheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Surprisingly, Aamir Khan’s age in real life does not comes across as a drawback for the film. Both the star and the Director deserve credit for this. The tight script, the make up and the quality of the acting combined together,  easily make up for this potential shortcoming. You go in thinking “Couldn’t they find someone younger to play a college student?’ but once you watch the film you realize that this was never an issue. Kareena Kapoor handles her role with ease while Boman Irani manages to deliver without going overboard like he often does.  Aamir Khan as the lead in the film puts in another distinctly different, yet impressive performance. His ability to transition between his various roles (Taare Zameen par, Ghajini, 3 Idiots) is commendable. Besides, he deserves credit for selecting his roles and films so carefully so as to avoid stereotyping and yet being able to consistently churn out mega hits.

The Controversy Regarding the Credits

The film makers have given credit to Chetan Bhagat the author of the book Five Point Someone in the credits stating that it was “based on the book by Chetan Bhagat”.  There was some controversy surrounding this issue instigated by the author himself.  But my personal (having read the book) view is that the film makers have been inspired by the book but chose to modify the story significantly. In fact, this film is a perfect example of the stark difference between writing a book and making an equivalent  Bollywood film. Some of the sequences in the film are so ridiculous yet so funny. This is something that is almost impossible to capture in a book. The dialogues form a very critical part of Bollywood films especially when comedy is involved (Kareena’s dialogues about Gujju dishes comes to mind among others!). There can be no dispute whatsoever that the film makers deserve all the credit for this and there is nothing even remotely similar in the book.

Indian films with big stars often indulge in creating the persona of a larger than life image.  Aamir Khan’s character undeniably shoulders this responsibility. He is the smartest student, never worried about grades, knows all the answers, tops the class, cracks the jokes, is eternally helpful, has a heart of gold, gets into trouble, gets the girl, makes you laugh and cry, earns your sympathy, appreciation, admiration, love….that’s traditional Indian cinema for you.  A conventional book of fiction seldom indulges in this  kind of “hero-giri” and Chetan Bhagat’s book is no different.

Next, there is the question of  the “message” in the film.  Sending a message or two through his films seems to be a Raju Hirani trademark (and lately Aamir Khan’s too as in Taare Zameen Par). The film is replete with direct criticism of the Indian educational system. I don’t recall any of this in the book. I don’t mean to say that there are no similarities with the book, but I think Chetan Bhagat’s “kicking and screaming” is without too much merit. The film in its totality is very different from the book and the film makers (IMHO) have given him more than adequate credit.

Book Review: If Today Be Sweet

Title: If Today be Sweet

Author: Thrity Umrigar

The story is about a Parsi family. The son (Sorab) immigrated to the US after coming to the US as a graduate student. He later marries an American (Caucasian) and settles down in the mid-west.  His mother (Tehmina Sethna) visits the US after her husband’s demise and has to grapple with the decision of where to spend the rest of her life.  She could go back to Mumbai and live by herself or chose to spend the rest of her life in the US with her son, his wife (Susan) and grandson (Cavas).

The bulk of the book deals with the mother’s dilemma and her struggles with life as a widow. The cultural challenges faced by most immigrants of Indian origin (especially parents whose children live in the US) are very well captured. Frequent comparisons are made throughout the book between the western outlook and the traditional Indian views on practically everything. These discussions (often in the mind of the lead character) fit in perfectly with the context of the story and adds depth to the emotional challenges faced by her.  Sohrab’s boss and the part of the story involving the owner of the company and his decision regarding change in leadership seemed a little far-fetched and trivialized. Apart from this, the rest of the story seemed believable and true to life.

This book is one more of the cultural cross-over books.  Unlike most books in this genre that stick to the Indian experience for the most part, this book has a very good blend of mainstream American characters.  The characters of Indian origin in the story interact with the mainstream through most parts of the book. So this book has much more to offer than a conventional “Indian experience” in the US.  Moreover, these interactions blend rather nicely into the story and don’t ever appear forced.

The author is a journalist turned University teacher and it shows in the writing which is all prim and proper except when there is “guy talk”.  The early part of the book tends to be slow (and sometimes boring) but once you survive this, the book is a very enjoyable read.