this evening I'll offer some (tempered) optimism:
We are frustrated, too, and it’s possible that Obama may never be able to give the speech that will make us feel better. He may never really lace into the oil companies or issue the kind of call to arms on energy that the environmentalists are yearning for.
That’s because it won’t get him anywhere. Unlike Bush, he has no national consensus to build upon. He’d barely finished his muted remarks on Tuesday before the House minority leader, John Boehner, accused him of exploiting the crisis “to impose a job-killing national energy tax on struggling families and small business.” Michael Steele, the Republican Party chairman, claimed that the president was “manipulating this tragic national crisis for selfish political gain.” And the ever-popular Representative Michele Bachmann denounced the BP restitution fund as “redistribution of wealth” and “one more gateway for government control.”
As a political leader, Barack Obama seems to know what he’s doing. His unsatisfying call for a new energy policy sounded very much like the rhetoric on health care reform that used to drive Democrats nuts: open to all ideas, can’t afford inaction, if we can put a man on the moon. ... But at the end of that health care slog, he wound up with the groundbreaking law that had eluded his predecessors for decades. The process of wringing it out of Congress was so slow and oblique that even when it was over it was hard to appreciate what he’d won. But win he did.
Ironic. The man we elected because we hoped his feel-good campaign speeches might translate into achievement is actually a guy who is going to achieve, even if his presidential speeches leave us feeling blah.
In the bank bailouts (much more successful than we first thought), the stimulus (still working), the health insurance reform (a real start on a deep and vexing problem across the developed world), and even the swarm of issues around Gitmo (torture has ended, while necessary, lawful military detentions and renditions continue), you see the same pattern of emotionally unsatisfying but structurally deep changes in the orientation of the ship of state. This is very gradual change we can believe in.
Obama's incrementalism, his refusal to pose as a presidential magician, and his resistance to taking the bait of the fetid right (he's president - not a cable news host) seems to me to show not weakness, but a lethal and patient strength. And a resilient ambition.
It’s one thing to be disappointed in policy outcomes, or even angry about them. But more and more it seems that we are in an age of liberal despair–as reflex and first instinct, as motif and explanation, even, it sometimes seems to me, as fashion. Criticism of legislation and proposals is always proper and necessary, as is the application of whatever pressure people can apply to try to produce more progressive outcomes. But I’ve read and heard many critiques that then race right past that into outright desolation.
The five-alarm political culture in which we live now forces upon us a certain kind of response to current events: Every little flare-up is elevated to roiling controversy, and every minor setback a potential death blow to the progressive cause, every departure from the sacred codex of Keynes not a mere delay or strategic feint or hindrance but an act of treachery. This much we know; who didn’t, during the last presidential campaign, think that some breathlessly reported development that turned out to be unimportant–the late revelation about Obama’s aunt in Boston who was an undocumented immigrant springs to mind–would be the back-breaking event that would sober up a besotted electorate and lift John McCain to the presidency? After 30 years of mostly defeats, liberals are quick to catastrophize.
But our political culture affects the way we think about the past as well. Too often, when progressives think of American history, we think only of the snapshots: those glorious moments when a historic bill is signed into law, or when the great progressive leader thunderingly confronts the forces of reaction. It’s good to remember those; they are our lodestars. But they are moments. Actual history is slower, more tedious, and certainly less uplifting. It’s not for Obama’s sake, but for liberalism’s over the long haul, that we need to consider this reality and proceed in full awareness of it. It’s only by seeing this fuller picture that we can know how history actually unfolds in real time and place our present experience within that context. We don’t do nearly enough of that. Cable news and op-ed pages and websites are a kind of modern-day camera obscura, giving us an image to be sure, accurate in a way, but upside-down.
The changes we want to see won’t happen in 18 months, or in two years, or four, or probably even eight. Indeed, the entire Obama era, if it lasts eight years, is best thought of not as a culmination, or a self-contained time frame that should be judged a failure if X, Y, and Z don’t happen. It’s the start of a process that may take 16 years, or 24; that may be along the way interrupted or undone; that will be fought tooth and nail, as we’ve plainly seen these recent months, by others whose idea of America is incomprehensible to us but who are citizens too, with the same rights we have.
The image of Barack Hussein Obama speaking to America from his stage in Grant Park that night in November 2008 as president-elect was, for liberals, one of the most staggering images we’ve ever seen. One felt–many millions of us felt–almost invincible in a way; finally justified in our beleaguered beliefs, after so many years of despondency and rage; aware in fresh and unprecedented ways of our collective power, like mortals transformed into superheroes in the movies, realizing for the first time that they could fly or crush stone. It seems likely that American liberals will never again for the foreseeable future feel quite like we did that night. All things seemed possible.
And yet, it almost goes without saying, all things weren’t possible, because all things never are. American liberalism has, for the last year and a half, been living through a painful period of coming to terms with this reality. It’s a traumatic process:
If we insist on thinking of Obama–and in our personality-driven political culture, it’s so hard not to do this–as liberalism’s redeemer, he will always disappoint, as redeemers usually do. But if we think of him as one piece on a vexing historical chess board in a match that will take years to play out, we can exhale, and see the true shape of the tasks ahead of us. I don’t mean to say here that people should just be quiet. Quite the opposite: Progressive pressure is a better guarantor of progressive governance than hoping that governors will follow their most compassionate instincts. And liberals shouldn’t declare themselves entirely satisfied with an outcome unless they actually are (something that probably won’t happen too often). But I do very much mean to say that liberals should avoid the seductive temptation of wallowing in disappointment, and letting that turn into fury and then resignation–branding decisions one disagrees with as "betrayals" and "sell-outs," retiring inward, pushing away from civic life.
this is about something more important and lasting than any single president. We are in a pitched ideological battle that seems virtually certain to continue for many years. In that battle, despair will produce only defeat.
Democrats should feel a lot better than they do. They enacted a health-care bill that had been their dream for more than 60 years. They pulled the country out of a terrifying economic spiral. They are on the verge of passing the biggest reform of Wall Street since the New Deal. The public has identified enemies that are typically seen as Republican allies: oil companies and big bankers. And given the Republicans' past policies, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is at least as much their problem as Obama's.
On top of this, the GOP seems to be doing all it can to make itself unelectable, veering far to the right and embracing a Tea Party movement that, at its extremes, preaches the need for revolution. That sounds more like the old New Left than a reinvigorated conservatism. Oh, yes, and can you think of one thing Republicans stand for right now other than cutting spending? Never mind that they are conspicuously vague about what they'd cut.
Yet it is Democrats who are petrified, uncertain and hesitant -- and this was true before the oil spill made matters worse. Obama's bold rhetoric about "the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels" was not matched by specifics because he knows that nearly a dozen Senate Democrats are skittish about acting. Why does it so often seem that Republicans are full of passionate intensity while Democrats lack all conviction?
There is something preposterous about how the administration and congressional Democrats have lost every major public argument that they should be winning.
They lost it on a stimulus bill that clearly lifted the economy, as Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, argued persuasively in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. They are losing it on the health-care bill, a big improvement on the current system enacted through a process that made it look like a tar ball on an Alabama beach. They are losing it on the deficit even though it was Republicans who cut taxes twice while the Bush administration was starting two wars.
Obama is often criticized for being too professorial. The irony is that Republicans who have little to say about how to solve the nation's major problems are dominating the country's underlying philosophical narrative.
From Plaquemines Parish to Wall Street, we are seeing what happens when government takes too hands-off an approach to private economic actors. Yet the GOP is managing to sell the idea that the big issue in this election should be . . . government spending.
Professor Obama and his allies ought to be ashamed of this. The cure for malaise is to have a self-confident sense of purpose, and to act boldly in its pursuit.