“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you — we as a people will get there.
There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who wont agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government cant solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way its been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”—Barack Obama, November 4, 2008
November 4, 2009. It’s been exactly one year since Barack Obama was elected, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the president hasn’t fixed the whole world yet. Then again, he never promised such a thing. But despite some “setbacks and false starts,” we’re in considerably better shape than we were when the president delivered the above words on election night in Chicago.
One of his central goals, going all the way back to his 2004 convention speech, of building common ground between Americans of different ideologies and backgrounds is going to be more difficult than was previously anticipated. However, what’s beginning to take shape is common ground between the far-right and the far-left insofar as they’re both angrily lining up in opposition to this White House.
Of course the wingnut right — the Beck-Limbaugh-Palin Industrial Complex — has a significant head start. Plus, they’re immovable. Nothing this president does, short of resignation, will ever be greeted positively and everything will be pegged as a Nazi-Communist-Nixon-Carter-Terrorist usurping of American exceptionalism. However, on the left, there’s a growing discontentment that’s rapidly metastasizing into a similarly virulent and unchangeable anger. It not only threatens to fracture the president’s progressive base, but it could also force the president to retreat to the middle.
Everything for this president hinges on the promise of change. And, in many ways, he’s delivered on that pledge, if you consider “change” to be a presidency both legislatively and stylistically different from Bush.
I’m not going to do the whole list, but the tent pole items include setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, opening up federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, equal pay for women, ending torture, passing a major economic stimulus bill, which has helped to boost economic growth and yank the Dow back from the cliffs of insanity, and it looks like we’re going to have a fairly solid health care reform bill with a public insurance option sometime this year (unless Harry Reid fumbles it). Last week alone, the president signed historic new hate crimes legislation protecting the LGBT community, killed the useless F-22 program, ended funding for ineffectual abstinence-only education, and was able to ballyhoo the first quarter of economic growth since 2007. Plus, per the president’s orders, the Senate finally voted to allow the Guantanamo inmates to be moved onto U.S. soil for imprisonment and trial.
Not too shabby on the change front compared with where we were on November 4, 2008. It’s also important to underscore that these aren’t merely good for the Obama administration, these successes are good for America. They should be celebrated as such without embarrassment or apology.
Even the most rabid wingnut in the throes of another schizoid embolism has to admit that these successes represent, at the very least, change.
But it’s a perceived lack of change that’s angering many activists on the left. For my part, I’m not in love with the old school DLC influence of Rahm Emanuel. There are growing indications that the moderation coming from the White House on the public option is mainly from Emanuel’s office. The pledge for bipartisanship is also growing really old, really fast, though I understand the political calculus in at least saying that it’s important. In reality, the only operational legislative bipartisanship we ought to be seeing is between the liberals and the conservadems — together representing a de facto two-party apparatus while the Republicans tend to their conniptions.
Meanwhile, administration officials have made some minor yet frustrating moves in terms of state secrets, indefinite detention and civil rights issues like the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). Changes on those fronts can’t come soon enough, but at least we’re being told they’re on the way.
So we have some troubling sameness, but looking at the raw list of accomplishments, the “change” side of the ledger appears to be more robust at this point, especially given that it’s only been a year.
But expectations have been unnaturally high, mainly because it’s so damn easy to project both our highest hopes and greatest fears onto this president.
In terms of the wingnut right, they’ve shoehorned literally every boogie man into Obama’s loafers. He’s both Carter and Nixon. He’s both a Marxist and a fascist Nazi. He’s both Hitler and Chamberlain. The wingnut right has gone so far as to paint a Hitler mustache on a man who the real-life Hitler would probably have killed with his bare hands — a mixed-race liberal with a Muslim name.
In terms of the left, we’ve set marble-man expectations, and then we’re shocked when these expectations aren’t met. Put another way, we want this president to be FDR meets Kennedy meets MLK meets LBJ meets Bobby Kennedy meets Rachel Maddow meets Superman.
We expect him to “get tough” and, I don’t know, flip his shit. Snap some Republican necks on live television. We want the very pragmatic and even-tempered Barack Obama to transform into a roid-raging berzerker. But I don’t think that’s entirely necessary.
While I’d love to see the president go all elbows-and-fists on Glenn Beck’s punch-me face, it’s just not going to happen. The attacks and antagonism from the White House against the far-right are more nuanced and subtle. It’s a gradual tweaking rather than a daily burst of rage. Over a four or eight year term, this could be much more effective than brute force. After all, it was this fighting style that defeated both the Clinton machine and a well-respected war hero.
My worry, though, regarding the left is that we’re nearing a zero barrier of sorts. Unless the president is able to cajole some of the more pissed off activists on the left, they’ll entrench and will become equally as immovable as the wingnut right. In other words, if the president is unable to win back a level of liberal support rivaling last November, nothing he achieves will be good enough to generate the same grassroots support he enjoyed during the 2008 campaign. The silence surrounding last week’s list of successes was deafening. And that could congeal into a serious electoral silence in 2010 and 2012, not unlike what we saw in 2000 with the left retreating to support Ralph Nader.
So what next?
On Tuesday, Arianna wrote about the president’s timidity. While I don’t necessarily agree considering how, for example, no other president — including one whose giant mustache is carved into Mt. Rushmore – has ever gotten this far in terms of reforming health care, she’s absolutely right in terms of style.
Perhaps the White House would be better served by simply bragging more. Take these achievements and really amplify them. The administration has a respectable syllabus of accomplishments, so why not get loud? Let fly. This isn’t difficult to do, especially given the president’s oratory skills. Ultimately, this could serve to further antagonize the right, driving them deeper into political irrelevance; it could also mobilize the left, possibly disarming some of the “not good enough” criticisms; and it could remind independents why they voted in record numbers for Barack Obama one year ago today.
As promised in Grant Park, the road is much longer and steeper than can be traveled in a single year. But I’m both encouraged and excited by the fact that we’re moving in the right direction — “calloused hand by calloused hand.”