Barack Obama campaigned as a populist firebrand but governs like a cerebral consensus builder. The founding fathers wouldn’t have it any other way.
Quindlen captures something one of the essential paradoxes of America with this well-constructed line:
This is a country that often has transformational ambitions but is saddled with an incremental system, a nation built on revolution, then engineered so the revolutionary can rarely take hold.
Aside from indulging in a bit of that rather annoying habit of re-writing of the “Yes, We Can” slogan that every pundit seems to try (“Yes, we can, but it will take a while.”), Quindlen does a good job of giving the larger historical perspective on Obama’s rather young presidency. She points out that even the grand gestures we remember today as changing history were in fact incremental and the result of compromises derided at the time – from Emancipation Proclamation which was designed to have no practical effect to the gradual accretion of rights by African Americans as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. She could have also mentioned that Social Security legislation when originally passed excluded half of the population, including all women and virtually all minority groups from its benefits.
Quindlen points to a single factor though unifying all these great presidents and their historic accomplishments:
[T]he presidents who have made real change have always done so in the same way: “Each of them had the country pushing the Congress to act, the people and the press both. The pressure has to come from outside.” So if the American people want the president to be more like the Barack Obama they elected, maybe they should start acting more like the voters who elected him, who forcibly and undeniably moved the political establishment to where it didn’t want to go.
I’ve believed that – and been writing that – since Obama took office, quoting FDR who told a number of audiences who came to ask him to pay attention to their issue (and here I paraphrase):
I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.
In the past year, I’ve been disappointed with the way in which the excitement of the campaign has fallen away, replaced most often by cynicism. The fact is, cynicism breeds results which create reason for more cynicism. The election of Barack Obama proved that hope that things could get better could motivate as many people as fear that they would be killed by terrorists or that we would look weak; and the cynicism and inertia that seemed a permanent part of America under Clinton and Bush could be overcome. It proved that a grassroots organization for a moderate, liberal agenda was possible and that it had the support of a majority of Americans. Now, Obama needs such an organization to push him, to push Congress, and to push the country. The question now is the same one that faced Obama back in the early days of the primary, the one which I called “the Obama paradox” as he attempted to “conjure the movement, the politics, and the consensus we need to tackle the long-term problems and strategic challenges we face as a nation.” The paradox was that in order for people to buy into the movement, it needed to be successful; and that in order for it to be successful, people needed to buy into it. He faces a similar issue now, though different in a number of significant ways.
I don’t know what the next step is to getting this movement back – but without it, Obama cannot tackle many of the serious, long-term issues facing our nation: from the failure of the War on Drugs to creating a sustainable framework for addressing the threat of terrorism from our long-term fiscal outlook to the deterioration of liberties in America; from health care reform to climate change; from tax and entitlement reform to education reform; from financial regulation to job creation. Failing to address any of these issues undermines America’s position in the world; and in many cases, without American leadership on them (or federal leadership on domestic issues), they cannot be solved. Without a movement pushing Obama, pushing Congress, pushing the press, pushing every community, Obama simply does not have the political capital to take these issues on – which is why there needs to be a movement.
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