Saturday, February 19, 2011
Barack Obama arrived in office a little over two years ago with the hope and excitement of his supporters and he arrived with his critics and detractors, too. That's simply the way it is in our plural democratic society. No American president ever has managed, as Abraham Lincoln put it, to please "all of the people all of the time." So maybe the slings and arrows of criticism thrown Obama's way these first two years in office haven't been all that unusual and with a little balance and perspective this presidency of his will take its rightful place along with the others. There's been some amount of discussion recently, just maybe prematurely, about that place. Just past midway through a first term, with all signs that he will pursue a second, there has been some question of Obama's presidency in terms of defining a legacy. This examination comes from friend and foe alike. Will Obama be remembered as only another politician who rode in and wrote law and policy with a certain amount of momentum behind him, only to be ridden out again with an equal and opposite reactive force? Is this that transformational presidency, harkened to hope, that we heard about in the campaign?
That message about change, derided and dismissed from the beginning by political opponents, has lately come into sharp question among those who elected Obama, especially now that they are faced with growing strength in the Republican opposition to their agenda. The President has shown, for many Democrats, what seems an unseemly readiness to compromise. The Bush Tax Cuts last year, the reductions proffered in this year's budget proposal, falling heavy on what are traditionally Democrat favored programs: Where is the leadership? The defining vision? Where is Obama's fight?
Personally, I believe these questions come of having missed something of the point.
What disappoints a lot of pundits and political junkies, from each side of our great divided debate, is that the core of Obama’s appeal isn’t in the end politically partisan or even particularly ideological. His message right from the beginning has just about always been about reaching for something a step beyond the divisive contest of contending parties. It has always been about the light of day after the fight. His defining moments have always been about that community organizer’s ideal of entering a room full of contending and conflicting views and leaving with conflict on some level resolved, moved beyond. Remember that he first came upon the national scene with his “There are no Red States. There are no Blue States —These are The United States” speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. His speech on race in the midst of the Jeremiah Wright controversies during the 2008 primaries was about reaching beyond black and white definitions of black and white and coming to some place of mutual understanding and respect. The healing message of his recent Tucson speech was along similar lines, a call not to disinvite debate between differing parties, but "to make that debate worthy."
That is not a message about Democrats storming the barricades that the Republicans build, not about clearing the square of opposing voices. It is about taking the discourse to a better place, where we can even differ profoundly but still work towards a practical and effective consensus. Constitutionally, I believe Obama sees government as an instrument of discerning that consensus. (And I happen to think he is right —at least that is what our government is supposed to be about.)
Take what is now constantly referred to as ‘Obamacare’ as an example, the two most clearly defining presidential moments in that legislation's process came in the very last throes (excuse the expression) before the bill was signed. The summit he held with leaders of both parties just towards the end was the right idea —yes, it probably came late and would have served more effectively earlier in the process, but the notion of the moment was that of the room entered with differences and exited with some approach towards consensus discerned. Then, just on the eve of the final vote, the speech he gave to the Democratic Congressional Caucus, where he essentially warned Democrats of the likely coming consequences and urged them at the same time (nevertheless) to vote what they thought was right, not what knew was politically safest. He quoted Lincoln to them as I recall —a Republican.
“I am not bound to win, but I’m bound to be true. I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have."
Activist Democrats will tell you they are disappointed in President Obama's compromises. They were disappointed in the final shape of the healthcare insurance legislation, or the details of financial regulatory reform. They were disappointed in the bargain struck over tax rates or the budget he most recently proposed. But perhaps presidents and actually effective political leaders are bound to disappoint those activists in a way, at times it is almost their job to do so, because the people they are elected to lead in total aren’t the advocates of their own political party. They aren't elected to do battle in the trenches with rivals of the ideological opposition. For presidents it is the balance of the whole debate they are supposed to navigate. It isn't the dissatisfaction of the ideologically invested contestants that is of concern, it is the disaffection of the American public as a whole from the debate itself, that sense of alienation from it, that it no longer actually involves their interests or seeks any real objective or consensus.
When Obama ran for President he spoke openly and specifically of wanting to take the nation somewhere past the tired conflicts of culture war entrenchment and ideological divide. He caught no small amount of hell on one occasion for mentioning that Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy had each managed the kind paradigm shift he had in mind. This was during the primaries, not the best time to express sympathy for Reagan. These two years into his presidency it is probably safe to say he hasn't yet perfected the transformation he spoke of. Then again I don't believe back in their day you would have had the sense we now enjoy of Kennedy's presidency or Reagan's. It's only fifty years later that a Republican senatorial candidate would project himself as a time morphed version of JFK, thirty years pass and a Democratic president invites comparison with Reagan, without shuddering.
In a strange way the next two years may be more clearly defining for Obama's presidency than the past two. The majority in Congress his political party enjoyed up until this year may have enabled the passage of landmark legislation, but the debate that was joined to move those pieces of legislation seldom rose in popular perception past the rivalries of the contestants. The bloodsport of American politics is just as bloody as ever. Different partisans will give you different takes on where the blame for that lies. The path forward through the next two years will likely involve both political parties in more of the give and take of blame and credit. But there is also a better debate to be had, one that looks past blame and credit and black and white definitions, one that sees not red states and blue states but United States, that moves past the tired contest and sets a common path forward instead, a worthy path.
We might all realize that the larger better debate is not about defeating the other side.
And it might turn out that's the point Obama was trying to get at all along, we’ll just have to see.