Obama’s Failures… and Ours

Obama’s Failures… and Ours

Obama’s mistakes in office are nowhere near the whole story. The rest of us must shoulder our share of the blame, too.


In a brilliant op-ed published in the LA Times immediately after the midterm elections, longtime educator and organizer Marshall Ganz observed that Barack Obama "entered office wrapped in a mantle of moral leadership. His call for change was rooted in values that had long been eclipsed in our public life: a sense of mutual responsibility, commitment to equality and belief in inclusive diversity. Those values inspired a new generation of voters, restored faith to the cynical and created a national movement. Now, eighteen months and an ‘enthusiasm gap’ later, the nation’s major challenges remain largely unmet, and a discredited conservative movement has reinvented itself in a more virulent form." Borrowing categorical distinctions conceived by political scientist James MacGregor Burns in the late 1970s, Ganz (who played a role in mapping out the original organizing strategy for the Obama campaign) assessed that immediately upon becoming president, Obama abandoned the "transformational" model promised by his presidential campaign in favor of a "transactional" model. "’Transformational’ leadership," Ganz explained, "engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success. ‘Transactional’ leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading, operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo."

The nation was ready for change, but Obama picked the status quo. And so "much of the public’s anger, disappointment and frustration has been turned on a leader who failed to lead." Ganz identified "three crucial choices that undermined the president’s transformational mission": "First, he abandoned the bully pulpit of moral argument and public education. Next, he chose to lead with a politics of compromise rather than advocacy. And finally, he chose to demobilize the movement that elected him president. By shifting focus from a public ready to drive change—as in ‘yes we can’—he shifted the focus to himself and attempted to negotiate change from the inside, as in ‘yes I can.’"

As a result of these choices, Obama not only failed to convince the public that he can turn the economy around—the central axis upon which judgment of the success or failure of his presidency will turn—but also lost the confidence of many of his original supporters. Yet in his refusal to adapt the inspirational rhetoric of his campaign to his presidency, he allowed the forces of right-wing reaction to claim the mantle of the common man. They even managed to make it appear to most people as if the Democrats, rather than the Republicans, were the party in the pocket of Wall Street and the big-spending fat cats.

Once again, it’s hard to know whether Obama’s legislative record could have been improved by a savvier strategy that dispensed with the misguided reliance on Republican reasonableness suddenly manifesting itself somewhere down the road. What is easy to imagine, however, is a much stronger showing for Democrats in the 2010 election and beyond, and with it the possibility of building on the achievements of the previous two years. The "youth vote" was one of the few categories of voters to stick with Democrats in 2010. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress Action Fund observe, "Young people aged 18–29 years old supported Democrats by a 13-point margin in the 2010 election (55 percent to 42 percent)." But while the young ‘uns made up 18 percent of the electorate two years ago, they fell to just 11 percent in 2010. Part of the explanation for the evident disillusion must lie with the unrealistic expectations of first-time voters. That’s a given. But the disappearance of the heroic narrative of the campaign and its replacement with an ongoing series of back-room dealings of exactly the kind Candidate Obama so eloquently condemned must be apportioned the lion’s share of the blame. Imagine if young people and first-time voters heard their president sounding like the candidate who told his audience, upon securing the Democratic nomination for president, "We will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth."

All presidents make errors that appear obvious in retrospect. But Obama’s mistakes in office are nowhere near the entire story. The rest of us must shoulder our share of the blame as well. A few days after the midterm elections, Van Jones spoke to a progressive gathering in Washington. After recalling the pageant of progressive performers who came to DC to celebrate Obama’s inauguration at the Lincoln Memorial—which featured, among many others, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, Pete Seeger and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington—Jones reminded his listeners, "You had the full beauty of the American people, the full force of our culture on display…. None of those people quit the movement and joined the Tea Party. All that creativity, all that power, all that spirit, all that soul—it’s still here. We went from We Are One to We Are Done…. Well, guess what? The days are now over when any of us can afford to wait for a politician in Washington, DC, to set the tone and the tenor and the face of our movement."

The essential ingredient missing from Obama’s campaign of hope and change was the hard work that would be necessary to convert the former into the latter—not only on his part but on ours as well.

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