Presidential elections are not usually marked by anniversaries. The political calendar turns on power, its seasons crisply measured by who is in charge. One hundred days since inauguration, four years until term limits come due–these are the conventional units of political time. It is evidently different, however, for this very different president.
Even as the results from actual, live campaigns in Virginia and New Jersey roll in, the political and media establishment is fixated on the anniversary of Obama’s election. The conversation is partly fueled by predictable commercialism, to be sure, as everyone from HBO to Obama’s former campaign manager are selling well-timed ruminations on 2008. However, it is also fitting, and even potentially constructive, to appraise the nascent Obama era by explicit campaign standards.
I do not mean trotting out false equivalencies between electioneering and governing. Speeches to joint sessions of Congress are not campaign rallies, nor should they be. Opposing legislators are not always competitors for the top job–even if they think otherwise. Yet most of the current grievances about Obama, from supporters and backlashers alike, can be understood as two variations on campaign themes.
There are the things the president is doing that he said he would do. These actions can draw plenty of criticism, but not genuine shock.
Then there are the things he is not doing which he said he would do. This is the area where there is leverage for the taking, and the inaction invites both critique and surprise, depending on the patience and faith of the observer.
Entertain this taxonomy, for the moment, and it is striking to see just how many grievances fall in the first camp. Consider how Democratic activists, professional progressives and many commentators knock Obama for his repeated investments in bipartisanship, despite meager returns.
“What [would] Candidate Obama think of President Obama,” asks Arianna Huffington, in her new contribution to the anniversary cannon, when the administration’s health care strategy delivers only “as much change as Olympia Snowe will allow?”
But that is precisely what candidate Obama campaigned on–fighting partisanship and working with Republicans, even when the costs and disagreements piled up. We may dislike a preference for futile bipartisanship over substantive policy, but we cannot pretend candidate Obama was misleading on this score.
There is a similar dynamic with the president’s appointees. They were mostly plucked from the “centrist,” consensus-oriented Washington establishment that Obama cited for validation during the campaign. It was just one year plus two weeks ago, in the campaign homestretch, when Obama publicly stressed that Colin Powell, a supportive member of Bush’s war cabinet, “will have a role” in the administration. It may be counterproductive for a Democratic White House to tap Bush’s bench for defense, or to stack the Treasury with veterans from Goldman Sachs (which topped the list of corporate staff contributions to Obama’s presidential campaign). But those alliances were clearly enunciated in campaign season.