This article is adapted from Inside Obama’s Brain, by Sasha Abramsky, by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © Sasha Abramsky, 2009.
One year ago this week, millions of Americans thronged to Washington to participate in a presidential inauguration the likes of which this country had never before witnessed. The sense of optimism was contagious. In cities and hamlets around the fifty states, one could almost physically feel the prospects for change. It was, in many ways, an emotional terrain more akin to a velvet revolution than to the ordinary quadrennial pageants that mark the transfer of power from one president to the next.
A year into Barack Obama’s presidency, some of the gloss of Candidate Obama has worn off, and many of the sky-high expectations for across-the-board, rapid change in how the country goes about its business have been punctured. In fact, it has become almost fashionable in progressive circles to dismiss the Obama presidency as a case study in contradictions, an oratorical feast with too little substance behind the words.
While some changes have not occurred in a manner or at a speed that I would have liked, I profoundly disagree with the notion that “nothing has changed,” that Obama is simply a more articulate version of George W. Bush.
No, the healthcare debate didn’t produce the single-payer system that I would have preferred, but can one imagine Bush spending six months of his first year in office pushing Congress to find a way to provide coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans? No, the Copenhagen conference didn’t produce the needed binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gases, but can one conceive of the Bush administration playing a constructive role in global climate change negotiations or prodding Congress to enact sweeping legislation in this arena? As for nuclear weapons, it’s pretty hard to envision Bush articulating a long-term vision of a nuclear-free world in the way that Obama has sought to do. Are we there yet? Of course not. But the fact that the president has prioritized nuclear arms reduction treaties, as opposed to assuming America has the right to go it alone on nuclear policy, is a huge start.
During the first months of the Obama presidency, I interviewed well over 100 of Obama’s friends, colleagues, fellow politicians and advisers while researching and writing my book Inside Obama’s Brain. One of the most frequent observations was that Obama is utterly preoccupied with history, with the cadences and rhythms of change, and with the long-term impact of his policy decisions. Confident in his reading of history, to a degree rare among contemporary political figures, he rarely gets flustered by short-term shifts in political fortune or momentary dips in his opinion poll ratings.
The first anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration presents a worthy occasion to consider the central role of long-term thinking, of understanding the moment as being part of a broader historical context, within the political philosophy–and the life philosophy–of the country’s forty-fourth president.