BARACK – THEN AND NOW
Back in 2008, during the Presidential campaign, I wrote a post for Lighthearted Blog entitled “Why Obama.” In that post, I argued that Obama’s candidacy rested on but a small number of premises. First, he is personally likeable and charismatic. Second, he is a true thinker – as thoughtful as he is intelligent, he enjoys both learning and teaching. Third, he is passionate, and his passion is grounded in his spirituality. Fourth, he is a man of impeccable judgment. Fifth, he is a man of supreme integrity. Sixth, while progressive, he is also pragmatic. And seventh, a number of the above qualities have come together in the form of his desire above all else to unify the nation, for how else can we accomplish great things if we are not truly unified?
Now, two years later, I can look back at the above assessment and see clear respects in which the promise has been realized. Barack is indeed a likeable personally – I don’t doubt that he would charm anyone who met him at a cocktail party. There is also no denying that he is a deliberate, thoughtful man, and this makes him continue to be popular among the PBS-listeners of America. In addition, two years into his Presidency, I see no reason to impugn his integrity or to question that he is a progressive pragmatist (it’s a bit easier to say that than to call him a “pragmatic progressive,” since pragmatism seems to be the dominant one of those two characteristics). Finally, it is clear that he would deeply love to unify this country.
But the last sentence reflects the central problem of the Obama Presidency. The GOP took steps early in the Presidency to thwart Barack from unifying the country behind his programs. And Barack was either unable or unwilling to fight back – or at least to fight like a Banshee. In other words, the GOP was fighting like an MMA grappler, and Barack was submitting to the Marquis de Queensberry rules. Unless you happen to be a young Mike Tyson, and perhaps even then, you’ll lose that fight every time.
Once it became clear that “unity” wasn’t happening, the Obama Presidency has seemed rudderless. When progressivism is subordinated to pragmatism, and when your opponents – and yes, the GOP leaders are behaving like opponents, not collaborators – are making it difficult to get anything remotely progressive from being accomplished, what are you left with? What practical goals can you set? The result has been an eerie sense of a lame duck Presidency, more than two years before the completion of the first term. It’s almost like the GOP has been satisfied with creating a legislative stalemate – and any chess player knows that sometimes, when your opponent has created a strong stalemate position, there’s nothing you can accomplish except staring blankly at the board and hoping that the game can end.
Fortunately, when you are President, you are involved in more than just the legislative process. You control the executive branch, and the executive branch can accomplish a lot even without a strongly supportive Congress. Take, for example, Barack’s recent enthusiasm for achieving a Middle East Peace agreement. There’s nothing that Boehner or McConnell can do to derail that process. I can come up with plenty of other examples – just go through the list of agencies represented in the Cabinet and consider how much each Department can be improved under the right kind of leadership.
The problem right now, though, is that we are in the midst of a political season, and as such, it is inevitable that we will think big. What can Barack do to transform the country – its economy, its foreign policy, even its mood? How can he lead his Party to a surprisingly strong showing in the Mid-terms? How can he earn re-election himself? And how can he regain control of the national debate and effectively pressure the more moderate Republicans to turn away from their own Party’s leadership, much as the Blue Dog Democrats are now so incredibly willing to abandon Barack, Pelosi and Reed?
The answer can be found in the one element that I thought would be present in his Presidency but that has so far been missing in action: his passion. And let me add to that his vision, and the courage to realize that vision even if it doesn’t always seem “pragmatic” to make the effort. To be sure, Barack the President, no less than Barack the Candidate, has made the effort to realize the vision of unifying the country. But that didn’t work, and that probably can’t work. So the question is, does he have a second act? Does he have passion for a vision of change that does NOT presuppose a general agreement among the body politic?
Reagan did, and that’s what made him such an “effective” President, by which I mean he was effective at implementing the agenda that he set out to implement. Barack recognized Reagan’s greatness in that sense, and he took plenty of heat from Hillary when he stood up for Reagan during their battles for the nomination. Now is the time for Barack to prove that he can indeed emulate what was best in Reagan – not the trickle down economics (yucch!), but the passion, the vision, and above all else, the courage.
The country awaits the response. And in particular, the electorate will await the response, both in November 2010 and in November 2012.