MADISON, WI –One year ago Tuesday, Barack Obama redefined American electioneering to such an extent that it was possible to believe that the success of his transformational campaign would lead to a transformational presidency.
After all, he had already changed most of what America “knew” about politics.
The freshman senator from Illinois had not only won an election for the presidency of the United States on November 4, 2008.
He had not just rewritten the rules that had for so long made the upper reaches of electroal competition the domain of white men of a certain class.
He had not merely put an end to the Bush-Cheney interregnum that had divided the nation along seemingly insurmountable chasms separating red and blue states.
With his victory on that remarkable presidential election day, he restored a measure of presidential legitimacy to a country that had for the better part of two decades seemed to wander in the wilderness. And with that legitimacy it seemed possible that he might make real the promise of “change.”
As he noted the anniversary Tuesday at an event in Madison, Wisconsin, Obama acknowledged as mich, saying, “One year ago, Americans all across this country went to the polls and cast ballots for the future they wanted to see. Election Day was a day of hope and possibility…”
That hope and possibility was grounded in the reality of an electoral mandate of a magnitude not seen in two dcades.
It had been 20 years since a president was elected with a majority of the popular vote and no serious debate about his Electoral College majority. While Democrats delighted in reminding Republicans that George Bush’s 2000 “victory” was imposed by a Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court and that his 2004 “victory” relied upon a shaky “mandate” of Ohio’s disputed result, Republicans noted that (because of the interventions of Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996) Bill Clinton “victories” were attained with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Obama’s victory needed no quotation marks.
He won without qualifiers or footnotes.
He won big – bigger than any presidential candidate in 20 years, bigger than any Democratic presidential candidate in more than four decades.
But Obama, always a more cautious man than his campaign suggested, has not governed big.
To be sure, he has faced daunting challenges. As the president explained in Madison, the 2008 victory was “a sobering one because we knew that we faced an array of challenges that would test us as a people. A financial crisis that threatened to plunge our economy into another Great Depression. Record deficits. Two wars. Frayed alliances around the world.”
But Obama has met those challenges with a restraint that has unsettled his supporters and emboldened his critics.
Obama’s has been a constrained presidency that has erred too frequently on the side of compromise and the pursuit of bipartisan cooperation – even when partners have not been readily available.
The man whose election inspired talk about how he might renew the “First 100 Days” ambition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” or the no-holds-barred legislating of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” administration, has governed far more mildly than his supporters hoped or – despite all the noise they have made – than his critics feared.
Obama White House maintained the mild approach on the anniversary of his election by “celebrating” with a remarkably low-key event in a town that backed his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination by an overwhelming margin and that backed his campaign for the presidency itself by an even more overwhelming margin.
In keeping with a “playing-it-safe” presidency, Obama played it safe in marking the anniversary of one of the greatest political achievements in American history.
Considering what Obama was up to a year ago, a visit to a middle school in a liberal college and state government town seems an oddly circumspect celebration for a man who one year earlier became the first president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to be elected with resounding popular-vote and Electoral College majorities and huge partisan advantages in the House and Senate.
In 2008, Obama and his team sought a mandate.
They refused to settle for 50-plus-one. They wanted it all.Obama’s campaign, which began to looked like a winner from the day that the economy tanked in mid-September (and Republican presidential nominee John McCain had his “fundamentally sound” moment), and which looked inevitable after Republican vice-presidential nominee sat down for an extended interview with CBS New anchor Katie Couric, ran full-on until the last vote was cast.
Schedules were shifted, resources were redirected, messages were adjusted with an eye toward winning where no Democrat had won in a generation – or generations.
On November 4, 2008, just about everything worked. Obama won the popular vote – which should matter for something in a democratic republic — by almost 10 million votes over McCain. He took 28 states and the District of Columbia, as well as one congressional district in Nebraska (where electoral votes are assigned by district) for a 365-173 Electoral College landslide. Ohio, Florida, Indiana, Colorado and Nevada – red states that in the immediately previous presidential elections had gone Republican – were painted a Democratic shade of blue. Virginia, which had not backed a Democrat for president since 1964, voted for Obama. So did another state of the old Confederacy, North Carolina.
The tide of Obama votes washed over into House and Senate contests, building Democratic majorities of the sort that party strategists never dared imagine.
It was a remarkable victory; a historic, transformational win.
And, then… Obama stopped campaigning. In some senses, this is what we ask of presidents. They are supposed to mount a superhuman quest for power and then, when they power is achieved, they are supposed to wear its mantle casually, with a deference to their foes, much talk of bipartisanship and a willingness to compromise proposals and even principles in the hope of seeming magnanimous.
But these are not magnanimous times.
Obama’s critics, led by radio personality Rush Limbaugh, declared their desire to see him fail as a president. And Limbaugh’s call was taken up by whole media networks and then by the whole of a Republican Party in which senators openly announced their hope that the commander-in-chief would meet his “Waterloo.”
A year into his presidency, Obama can point to accomplishments. And, no, we’re not talking here about that appropriately controversial Nobel Prize for Peace. In Madison, the president credited his administration with making “meaningful progress toward the goal” of rescuing “our economy from imminent collapse.”
Pointing to moves to cit taxes for working families, to save and create jobs and to ease the credit crunch, the president said, “All of this has contributed to the first quarter of economic growth in over a year. The rate of job loss is slowing, though not nearly fast enough yet. The work continues, but we are moving in the right direction, and we will continue to fulfill our obligation to do every responsible thing to pull this economy out of the ditch in which we found it.”
The president got no argument from the crowd of supporters, teachers and students who has gathered to hear him speak in a town that was a hotbed of Obamania in 2008.
But Obama did not come to Madison to lead a celebration like the one that brought tens of thousands of cheering supporters into the streets of the city — and so many others — after his election was confirmed last November 4.
The choice of Madison — a city where Obama won some precincts by 20-1 margins, in a county where he won almost 73 percent of the vote and carried every city, village and town, in a state he carried by a 56-42 margin and took 59 of 72 counties – reflected the caution that has characterized Obama’s presidency.
There are few “safer” cities for the president. Indeed, if he faces criticism in Madison and surrounding Dane County, it tends to be from the left. The demonstration outside the middle school was not a right-wing “Tea Party” but a “Books Not Bombs” protest that drew critics of the war in Afghanistan.
The Madison visit was planned before the results of the November 3 off-year elections were known. But at a time when Obama aides were wisely worried about contests for governorships in New Jersey and Virginia and a complicated congressional election in New York state, they weren’t taking any chances.
However, the caution inherent in Obama’s choice of Madison had less to do with the fact that it is a safe city than with the fact that the event he participated in was so very safe.
The president visited a racially- and ethnically-diverse public school that is an educational success story.
It was a tightly-controlled, essentially-closed event with a small, friendly audience and a soft, almost apolitical message.
In other words, Obama was not campaigning on the anniversary of his campaign win.
He was presidenting.
And that’s the problem.
Democrats just lost the governorships of two states Obama won because turnout among people of color and young people – core Obama constituencies – dropped dramatically from 2008 to 2009.
There’s an enthusiasm gap. And that gap is something that should worry Obama.
There’s nothing wrong with making a presidential visit to a middle school. In fact, there is a lot that’s right about such a move. As former Madison School Board member Ray Allen said, “This is exactly where he should be. This president inspires young people, especially young people from low-income and minority communities. It’s one of his greatest strengths and he should emphasize it.”
But after a presidential visit to the school, Obama should have done something else.
He should have made a campaign visit to downtown Madison.
In Madison, a city known for its massive turnouts for Democratic rallies, Obama could have celebrated the one-year anniversary of his election with a great big rally at the state Capitol – where tens of thousands of people have shown up in the past for events featuring Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. “I was surprised that they didn’t do a Capitol rally,” said state Rep. Mark Pocan, one of the state’s most powerful and politically-savvy Democratic legislators. “If the president had done a noontime rally at the Capitol, the crowd would have been overwhelming – and overwhelmingly friendly. It would have brought back all those positive memories from last year, all the huge crowds cheering Obama on.”
The president’s team should have thrown caution to the wind and organized a great-big, rip-roaring celebration in Madison. And the president should have delivered a stem-winder speech outlining his health-care reform agenda and promising to fight harder than ever for the change his campaign promised. “It would have energized people,” said Mary Lang Sollinger, the finance director of the state Democratic Party and a stalwart Obama backer. “I had so many people who wanted to know where they could get tickets, who wanted to see him. There are a lot of people who want to get out and cheer this president on.”
Had Obama flipped into campaign mode on his big anniversary day, critics would surely have accused him of being too political.
In fact, Obama has not been political enough.
At this point in his presidency, recognizing both his challenges and his potential, Obama should borrow a page not from Democratic mentors such as Roosevelt and LBJ but from a Republican: Ronald Reagan.
Reagan never had a Republican Congress to work with – Democrats held the House throughout his two terms while control of the Senate shifted – but his was a strong presidency. Why? Because Reagan and his aides understood the power of the bully pulpit.
A visit to a middle school looks and is presidential.
A great big rally in the middle of a supportive town on the anniversary of a great big victory is campaigning.
But campaigning produces powerful images of a popular president being cheering on by supporters who want him to fight rather than compromise.
Reagan would tell Obama that presidents who succeed know that they can never stop campaigning. (And Roosevelt and LBJ would echo the sentiment.)
Obama needs to keep visiting schools. That’s what good presidents – and even not so good presidents — do.
But Obama, the brilliantly successful campaigner of 2008 but the not quite so brilliantly successful president of 2009, should start visiting the bully pulpit. That’s where presidents who are serious about governing built the popular support and the political strength to make words like “hope” and “change” into something more than mere slogans.