When the press mentions the online hordes who gathered on the tubes of the internets to push Obama to victory, they are talking about people like me. I started a blog because (along with my unhealthy compulsion to write) I decided to support Obama in 2007; I raised several thousand dollars from dozens of my friends and online contacts; I sent out emails making the case for Obama to my family; I bought a sign to place in my front yard and attended rallies in Brooklyn and Manhattan; I fought against smears in emails and in the social media (on reddit, on digg, on Stumbleupon, on Facebook, and on discussion boards); and on November 4, 2008, for the first time in my life, I walked out of the polling center proud of who I had cast my vote for.
A year on, there has been much commentary about what people like me think now – the young, the wired, the inspired. Were we were just naive and now feel fooled by Obama’s promise of “Hope, change, blah, blah, blah,” as speechwriter Jon Favreau referred to the Obama’s magic formula? Do we think that Obama sold-out to the banks and health insurance industry? Has he disappointed us with his escalation in Afghanistan? Certainly, a good portion of the left has turned against Obama with the passion of scorned lovers – as demonstrated by the histrionic pronouncements of Howard Dean (who denounced the health care bill as a “bigger bailout for the insurance industry than AIG“) and the Village Voice (which labeled the president, “George W. Obama.”)
I cannot speak for all of my fellow liberal bloggers, my fellow redditors, my fellow Obama supporters – but I, for one, am not disappointed. During the campaign, I saw Obama as – and exhorted others to support him because – he was an idealistic tinkerer. He inspired with his grand rhetoric but his policy proposals and instincts were epistemologically modest. He understood that the status quo was difficult to change, and that change brought with it its own perils. His proposals sought to pragmatically improve our society a bit at a time – creating processes that would allow for organic change rather than imposing radical top-down measures. For anyone who took the time to investigate his policy proposals, this was clear – that Obama had learned deeply the lessons of Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement – that centralized government action always had unanticipated consequences; yet at the same time, Obama had not rejected the lessons of Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton – that government could also do much good, that collective action was needed to shape our society, and that times of crisis called for, “bold, persistent experimentation.”
Obama has met my high expectations; he has governed seriously and with bipartisan substance. His Congressionalist approach has led to a string of legislative accomplishments rarely seen in Washington and a stronger record of spending cuts than George W. Bush. (Though his predecessor admittedly did not set the highest standard.) He passed a massive stimulus bill supported by policy wonks on the left and right, composed of more than a third tax cuts, but including much needed funding for education, infrastructure, and technological innovation. He pulled the nation back from the brink of a financial crisis and recession without nationalizing the banks or bailing them out yet again. He moved America back from the panicked emergency measures adopted by George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11. He salvaged some deal from Copenhagen despite the Chinese attempts to undercut America’s position. He appointed a moderate, liberal pragmatist to the Supreme Court. He has made many long-term bets in domestic and foreign policy which we have yet to see play out. And of course, there is his attempt at health care reform – combining the most significant attempt at cost control in a generation with the most significant expansion of access to medical insurance. (The two goals being surprisingly compatible as Milton Friedman acknowledged.) Though this last bill still has not had its fate decided, these are serious and substantial accomplishments that form the basis of a solid legacy. Yet Obama hasn’t been able to achieve his core promise: to overcome the Freak Show that has dominated our political discourse for a generation.
This is the one profound disappointment I have with Obama’s presidency to date. His core promise (which helped him defeat Senator Clinton) was that he would be better able to move past the rabid partisanship and petty squabbles of the Baby Boomers – that he could surmount the influence of the “idiocrats” on our political conversations, as they jumped from petty scandal to scandal, from one moment of faux outrage to another. This Freak Show that dominated our political conversation forced politicians to treat their constituents as children incapable of understanding either why their leaders might be less than perfect or that they could not both lower taxes and increase spending forever. As Obama addressed the issue of Reverend Wright in his campaign, he proved he was capable – at least for a moment – of surmounting this Freak Show mentality, treating the American people as if they were adults capable to wrestling with the difficult issues of race and religion. But since this moment, Obama has seemed unable to fully rise above this Freak Show. With the Tea Party demonstrations in August 2009 rallying against “death panels,” handouts to illegal immigrants, “government mandated abortion” and other myths that were useful in rallying the Republican base (if not in describing the bill), he seemed finally to have lost the conversation. Those with legitimate and conservative concerns, as well as those with progressive ones, were overshadowed by the inchoate anger of the hysterical.
Now that Scott Brown has replaced Ted Kennedy – and with the pundits and media figures and Republicans circling – the Freak Show has declared health care reform dead. Again. For Obama to resurrect this bill, to restore the momentum in his presidency, and prove he is capable of governing and dealing with long-term issues (rather than the political posturing which have marked the past 15 years), he will need to break the hold that the idiocrats have over our political discourse and reconnect with his grassroots supporters instead of playing the inside Washington game. While Obama spent his first year focused on governing and policy, with his State of the Union last night, Obama began to focus on the political task of getting the American people behind him as he attempts to tackle the difficult, long-term issues that have been festering for so long unaddressed by our dysfunctional politics.
We should remember one thing as Tea Party supporters jubilantly support their momentum and energy with Scott Brown’s election: 14 months is a very long time in this political age. Interpreting political movements in light of the Feiler Faster thesis, it’s not surprising that it was just 14 months ago that the Obama grass roots which seemed ascendant now seem dormant; and 14 months from the August birth of the Tea Party movement happens to be November 2010.
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