Obama's core problem with his supporters from 2008, the ones who listened to his soaring rhetoric and believed he really was going to transform Washington — and have since been bitterly disappointed. This has always been something I could understand only intellectually, since I never for a second paid any attention to his stump speeches. Of course they soared! Of course they promised a new era! That's what politicians always promise. Why on earth would anyone take this seriously, when every single other piece of evidence showed him to be a cautious, pragmatic, mainsteam, center-left Democratic candidate?This is the Gideon Rachman school of thought about Obama's hopemongering: that it was composed of"some of the most clichéd and least challenging slogans in the American political lexicon: unity not division; the future not the past; change not stagnation."
I beg to differ. Of course there is a lot of cliche in Obama's political speech -- political speech cannot subsist without it. But there was always a good deal more -- evidence of a truly rare mind at work upon the political process and the historical moment. Among the star-struck count a New Yorker editorialist, probably David Remnick, who in October 2008 compared Obama to Lincoln:
Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.To those who think that Obama's call to hope and promise of change was just window dressing for a center-left laundry list of policy proposals, let me suggest the following:
o Obama's invocation of 'the fierce urgency of now,' a phrase that Rachman ridiculed, was in service of a concrete argument that the country was at an inflection point, that years of Republican dominance and Bush misrule had primed the electorate for another major swing of the pendulum. Here's how he cast the opportunity in a debate immediately following his victory in the Iowa caucuses:
Look, I think it's easier to be cynical and just say, "You know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change." But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes -- not incremental changes, not small changes.Note that he is quite specific here about "the big stuff" that he was seeking to build a Congressional majority to accomplish -- and that he went one for two (perhaps with a sacrifice fly -- the new CAFE standards).
I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done.
And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
o Obama always cast his bid to be a "transformational" president as a bid to restore balance, a drive on his part and on the part of the American people to move the center left after decades of a tidal pull rightward. The meme was that America had historically committed itself to an ethic of shared prosperity; that that ethic had been left behind in the last ten-to-thirty years, and that the policies he was proposing would bring it back: Here's how he put it in Janeville, Wisconsin in February 2008:
when opportunity is uneven or unequal - it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States....Restored balance, shared prosperity, reversal of income inequality was the scaffolding in that speech for a long list of measures to shore up the income and security of the working poor and lower middle class.
We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control. The fallout from the housing crisis that's cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle. It was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington - the culmination of decades of decisions that were made or put off without regard to the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it's produced...
And we'll have to remind ourselves that we rise and fall as one nation; that a country in which only a few prosper is antithetical to our ideals and our democracy; and that those of us who have benefited greatly from the blessings of this country have a solemn obligation to open the doors of opportunity, not just for our children, but to all of America's children.
o If Obama promised big, it was generally as an incrementalist, a long game player. He stressed that he aimed to begin to solve major problems, to turn the battleship a few degrees on major policy re-orientations, to build a foundation for sustainable long-term prosperity. Look at the agenda he set himself in an interview with Time during the transition (my emphasis):
I think there are a couple of benchmarks we've set for ourselves during the course of this campaign. On [domestic] policy, have we helped this economy recover from what is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Have we instituted financial regulations and rules of the road that assure this kind of crisis doesn't occur again? Have we created jobs that pay well and allow families to support themselves? Have we made significant progress on reducing the cost of health care and expanding coverage? Have we begun what will probably be a decade-long project to shift America to a new energy economy? Have we begun what may be an even longer project of revitalizing our public-school systems so we can compete in the 21st century? That's on the domestic front.On those last three bolded questions, I think it's fair to say yes: his administration has made promisnig beginnings.
He took a similar incrementalist tack in his hundredth-day press conference:
This metaphor has been used before, but this -- the ship of state is an ocean liner; it's not a speed boat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue of how to bring about the changes that the American people need is to -- is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say that was when we started getting serious about clean energy, that's when health care started to become more efficient and affordable, that's when we became serious about raising our standards in education.o Throughout the endless campaign, Obama reiterated an historic argument -- admittedly quite idealized -- to the effect that America had reason to hope for a rebalancing that would restore shared and sustainable prosperity because it had met similar challenges in the past -- from the Civil War to the New Deal to the Civil Rights movement. While his historical snapshots were admittedly quite idealized, the basic premise -- that at crucial historical moments, leaders mustered (or surfed) the democratic will to effect momentous change -- is quite true.
Once core campaign promise on which Obama really has disappointed so far is in his promise to change the way Washington works, which on the campaign trail meant two things: somehow disarming lobbyists, and winning over the GOP with sweet reason and a good-faith effort to win their buy-in. With regard to lobbyist influence, we've gone backwards, thanks to the new floodgates of corporate money opened by the Supreme Court. On the latter front, Obama would have been better off remaining civil but drawing his own bottom lines for the Republicans (and the right wing of his own party in many cases) to take or leave -- both before and after the Tea Party takeover of the House.
But even on this front, the jury is still out. Long term, if Obama survives the re-election campaign, he may eventually be seen to have moderated zero-sum gladiatorial partisan political combat. First, there's the example of his personal probity and that of his administration -- no scandals, other than the bite-in-the-ass Solyndra. Second, he's convinced two thirds of the electorate that he's more moderate, reality-based and focused on solutions than the GOP. This perception has no doubt been vitiated in part by the parallel perception that he can be rolled by the implacable opposition. But if he wins the endgame -- re-election, and a reasonable compromise on taxes and spending before (or after) the Bush tax cuts expire -- he may win this war after losing a few battles.