What Ever Happened to Candidate Obama?
How disappointed are the Obama warriors of 2008? "May your love for me not fade as quickly as your love for Obama," read one pale pink e-card making the rounds on Valentine's Day. Obama himself addressed the topic of a one-term presidency in a recent interview with Diane Sawyer, albeit in a noble, idealistic, theoretical way ("I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president"). Well, OK, who wouldn't rather be really good for four years than mediocre for eight; but how many really good one-term presidents have there been? (Only one--James K. Polk--according to a New York Times op-ed by Robert W. Merry, publisher of Stratfor and author of a biography of, well, James K. Polk.)
I'm still glad I supported Obama over Hillary Clinton. If Hillary had won the election, every single day would be a festival of misogyny. We would hear constantly about her voice, her laugh, her wrinkles, her marriage and what a heartless, evil bitch she is for doing something--whatever!--men have done since the Stone Age. Each week would bring its quotient of pieces by fancy women writers explaining why they were right not to have liked her in the first place. Liberal pundits would blame her for discouraging the armies of hope and change, for bringing back the same-old same-old cronies and advisers, for letting healthcare reform get bogged down in inside deals, for failing to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan--which would be attributed to her being a woman and needing to show toughness--for cozying up to Wall Street, deferring to the Republicans and ignoring the cries of the people. In other words, for doing pretty much what Obama is doing. This way I get to think, Whew, at least you can't blame this on a woman.
I'm not even sure how much of it you can blame on Obama. We've had ample evidence of how little power he has over the Democratic barons of the Senate--so little that he had to bribe Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu with great big haunches of pork to get their votes on a healthcare bill that would benefit millions of their constituents. He is trying to bring some of the Guantánamo prisoners to trial on the US mainland, and Democrats like Jim Webb have sold him out. The Republicans have made clear their intention to obstruct his every move, and thanks to antidemocratic customs like the filibuster and the Senate hold, they've done a pretty good job so far. These are basic features of the landscape.
But let's not go overboard. The real-world constraints on what Obama can do are considerable. (Thank you, founding fathers, for setting up the Senate so that white, rural, conservative states with the population of Staten Island get the same two senators each as multiethnic urban powerhouses like California and New York. That little gift to the slave states of 1788 continues its antidemocratic work today.) But he is, after all, the president. He can propose, he can set forth an agenda, he can demand. He can ask for more than he knows he can get, he can push the boundaries. He doesn't have to do the Republicans' work for them--by asking for a smaller stimulus than necessary, by having the bulk of healthcare reform not kick in until 2014 to keep costs down, by praising obscenely rich bankers as "very savvy businessmen" to a nation with a 9.7 percent official unemployment rate. It's as if the Blue Dogs have gotten into his head, and instead of thinking how to push the possibilities to the max, he's thinking how he can placate his opponents in advance. Right now, the story of healthcare reform suggests that this is not possible--it simply enables a fresh set of even more egregious demands.
It's true that Obama was elected with the votes of many independents and some Republicans, and he has to respect that or end up building houses with Jimmy Carter. Lots of people were inspired by his promise to transcend party differences and take what was best from both Democrats and Republicans--I never understood it, because from my perspective Republicans have nothing to offer; but he did say it, and people took it seriously. A year later, though, those independents are leaving his side in droves, and with the possible exception of ordinary people of color, the base--prochoice women, labor, civil rights activists, opponents of war, progressives, leftists, civil libertarians--is demoralized. His poll numbers may be above 50 percent (although as I write a CNN poll shows a majority opposing a second term). But passable polls don't measure enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is what gets people to write checks they can't really afford, give up their vacations to knock on doors, spend their evenings phone-banking and push their friends to vote. It's easy to dismiss progressives as insignificant and dreamy or, as Rahm Emanuel put it, "fucking retarded." But Obama won't get re-elected without them. They are the troops.
During the campaign Obama was often attacked as being all airy speeches and noble rhetoric. Maybe he took that criticism too much to heart and made the mistake of trying to rack up accomplishments quickly through wonkery and compromise and deal-making, the normal things politicians do--only unfortunately the Republicans aren't interested in governing, and the Blue Dogs are mostly interested in themselves. We'll never know what would have happened if he'd continued to call on the better angels of our nature--if, for example, he'd presented healthcare reform as social solidarity, if he'd made people really feel the suffering of others and called upon them to right this terrible wrong. Maybe people--including progressives--wouldn't have been so easily discouraged and disillusioned by the inevitable complications and imperfections of the plan itself.
What is the point of Obama being conciliatory and careful if his opponents are reckless and don't want to conciliate? Why not use this awful moment when so many are losing their jobs and houses, and states are cutting services to the bone, to remind people why they voted for him?