So who is Barack Obama?
Not only do we still not know, but in a very real sense, I don’t think he knows either. Presidencies have a nasty habit of being shaped by external events and pressures that can sometimes be completely unanticipated.
I think the greatest parallels to this moment and this president are not so much to JFK or Lincoln in their times, but to 1932 and the Roosevelt presidency. FDR turned out to be one of America’s greatest presidents (he’s actually at the very top of my own list) and a very liberal “traitor to his class”, but neither of those seminal attributes of his presidency were much anticipated by many.
Similarly, Barack Obama strikes me as something of an ideological chameleon, coming into office in a moment very similar to 1932, though obviously not (yet, anyhow) as dire. Like FDR, he enters the presidency inheriting a massive economic crisis, the proportions of which we still don’t know, other than that it is already very, very big. Like FDR, he inherits this from a discredited Republican Party which has effectively ruled the country for decades. Like FDR, enormous hopes are riding on this rather unknown quantity about to be sworn in as president of the United States.
And, like FDR, I expect that this combination of conditions will give Obama wide latitude to govern, and even to fail to produce quick results, provided he is at least seen to be trying. I mean, think about it. If you wanted to follow any president in American history, who would it be? Look at what happened to John Adams, Andrew Johnson and Harry Truman, each of whom followed the most renowned and most revered of American presidents. Adams, one of the great patriots of the Revolution, one of the top handful of members in the Founders pantheon, couldn’t win a second term. Johnson got impeached, in part for not being Lincoln. And Truman was run from office in 1952 with job approval ratings that matched those of a certain chimp-like character with whom we’re all too familiar today.
On the other hand, look at who the great presidents followed. Washington came after George III and the Articles of Confederation. If you were Washington’s chief political strategist, you couldn’t write a script that good. Lincoln succeeded James Buchanan, the guy who was, until 2001, widely considered the worst president in American history. FDR followed Herbert Hoover, a president who refused to do anything while the country melted into poverty. People began naming the cardboard shanties in which they were forced to live after that guy. In short, Obama’s going to have a lot of good will and latitude by virtue alone of having the good fortune to follow the most disastrous cock-up of a president in American history. Anything will be a relief after Bush. It’s the Beatles coming on stage after the local beer hall cover band with the wasted drummer and out-of-tune guitarist, not the other way around.
For this reason and others, then, Obama is going to have a solid and likely long honeymoon, I suspect. And if he gets through the first two years looking good, he’ll also likely keep and possibly even increase his Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. That is traditionally not so easy. With rare exception over the last century, the party controlling the White House loses seats in midterm elections (particularly the sixth year of a presidency). But I’d bet money right now, a month before Obama is even sworn-in, that Democrats do well in 2010. Not because they’re so brilliant, of course. They’re not. But because of the conditions described above, because of certain characteristics I see in Obama discussed below, and because the Republican Party has dug itself into a massive pair of holes.
The first of these holes is one of form. The GOP has run ugly campaign after ugly campaign since the days of Joe McCarthy, and as recently as the McCain-Palin attempt to turn Obama into a socialist who pals around with terrorists. I don’t think the public is much in the mood right now for another round of insanely-divorced-from-reality carping, brought to them by the very folks who created these ugly disasters, while their president is making reasonable and centrist efforts to rescue them from sinking out of the middle class. Personally, I hope the Republicans continue to make this most egregious of mistakes, as they have been doing lately by running hysterical ads concerning the non-existent Obama-Blagojevich scandal. When even Newt Gingrich criticizes the stupidity of the party’s move, you know you’re hurtin’, eh? But I say, bring it on, fellas! Please, please, go ahead and self-destruct. Er, self-destruct more, that is.
Of course, their other problem – a substantive one – is even more intransigent. This is the party and the ideology that delivered the country into the perfect storm of multiple simultaneous crises. Hey, would you buy a used government from the same people who brought you 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, global warming, skyrocketing national debt, torture, isolation from our allies, hatred of the world, and now what is – at the very least – the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression? If you think I’m just being cute here, ask yourself this question: Which prominent Republicans have you heard calling for a wholesale restructuring of their party’s ideological commitments? Or even partial reform? Better yet, have you heard even one of them take a significant shot at George W. Bush, the very personification of regressive politics? No, we haven’t heard that. Indeed, pretty much all we’ve heard is some mumblings about how the GOP needs to become more ‘conservative’.
Not only do these guys not intend to change, but they fundamentally cannot. The party has become nothing more than a vehicle for plutocratic kleptocracy, run on the backs of an army of scary-monster, sex-obsessed, religious freaks who act as shock troops for the money boys. My guess is that the latter group has long ago now left the sinking ship and is already fast cozying up to the new bosses in town, the ones with D’s after their names on the ballots. These thieves couldn’t possibly care less about which party they buy – they’re happy to do business with anyone. Heck, they’re probably relieved not to have to attend those stinking prayer breakfasts anymore in order to keep their marionettes convinced that they give a shit.
But, of course, with the kleptocrats out the door, that leaves the religious right in full ownership of the GOP, and they ain’t letting go, brother. This crowd would rather lose elections than their principles, and so they will. And, indeed, so they have been. Yes, it’s true, ladies and gentlemen – Republicans will no doubt continue to be a force to be reckoned with in Utah and Mississippi for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, though, the rest of the country appears to have come to its senses. As a side note, that creates some interesting new political dynamics with potentially far-reaching consequences. I can’t recall during my lifetime a moment more ripe for the development of semi-viable third and even fourth parties in America, but that will only happen, if it does, a few years out. Meanwhile, one senses that the national GOP leadership needs at least one or two more solid electoral drubbings to disabuse them of their sorry ways, by which time it will probably be too late.
But what of the Democrats and Obama? I suspect that one of the primary reasons that the Democrats have been so disappointing to progressives these last two years is that their years in the wilderness have made them ‘smart’. Of course, another explanation is that they’re also nearly as bought-off as the GOP, but what I mean by this is that they have learned from their past experience and have therefore resisted doing anything remotely courageous with their majority powers – like basic oversight, investigation, impeachment, ending the war in Iraq or national healthcare, for instance. From the perspective of a political party seeking only to aggrandize power, one might see why. The old adage applies well here: when your opponent is busy self-destructing, get out of the way. From the perspective of the country’s needs, however, this has been something less than a powerful agenda for progress.
But, more than anything, I think Democrats have learned lessons from three unhappy experiences ranging from the Carter to the Lil’ Bush years: what happens when you go off on your own without your president, what happens when your president goes off on his own without you, and what happens when you not only don’t have a president, but are additionally stuck in the minority in Congress. Because they will be anxious, above all, not to repeat the latter experience, because the Harry Reids and Nancy Pelosis of this world are nothing like a Sam Rayburn or a Henry Clay, and because they seemed to easily be able to stomach rolling over for George Bush, I doubt seriously we’re going to be seeing much in the way of strained relations between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Congress, and especially Democrats, have gotten good at deference, and they’ll be happy to defer to Barack Obama as he helps them cement a generation-long realignment of American politics these next two, four and eight years.
And what of Obama himself? There are many laudatory words that come to mind when thinking about this supernova who has burst over the American landscape. Smart, articulate, inspiring, eloquent, balanced, grounded and thoughtful are just some of them. But what think most people have not yet fully appreciated is quite how wise he is. Wisdom is a bit like being smart, but definitely not the same. Both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were the smartest guys around. Both had mediocre presidencies, at best. Wisdom is perhaps best understood as applied smarts. In any case, it surely involves having a keen understanding of what works, what motivates people, what the public wants, and how to make decisions effectively. Look at Obama. He’s been doing some enormously difficult things for two years now, under the most powerful competition and scrutiny there is. And, not only has he succeeded in ways that nobody imagined he could, he has made nary a significant mistake. That’s a record unmatched in our time.
Yep, when it comes to political wisdom, this guy turns it up to eleven. That’s why I think he’s going to have a very successful presidency, and in doing so, he is going to cement in place a center-left, solid Democratic majority in Congress and out in the country. There will be mistakes, to be sure, and there will be ugly bummers far removed from the administration’s control exploding in their faces. But what I don’t think we’ll see is pitched battles among the top staff, as in Carter’s White House. I don’t think we’ll see a focus on trivial issues or personal immaturity, as in the Clinton White House. And I don’t think we’ll see the president trying to solve every problem all at once, as in both these precedents.
I don’t know Obama’s politics well enough to say for sure at this point, but I suspect he’s going to be too centrist for my taste (most any president who could be president in today’s America probably would). But, at the same time, I feel very confident in his competence and wisdom. That, coupled with all the other favorable conditions for him (which include many unfavorable ones for the country, chiefly Bush and his legacy) will probably make this the most successful presidency since Roosevelt. Maybe we’ll even amend the Constitution to give him a third term!
Talk about getting ahead of yourself…! I know, I know. Sorry about that. Meanwhile, back on terra firma, of particular concern to progressives is the shape of the administration as it has now come together over the weeks since the election. Not only are there few progressives on Obama’s team, but there are no name progressives at all. You won’t find Maxine Waters there, or Bernie Sanders or Dennis Kucinich or Mario Cuomo, or even Russ Feingold. Indeed, it’s actually worse than that. It is no exaggeration to say that Republicans are better represented on this team than are progressive Democrats. And we are the ones who made Obama president, while they, of course, had a slightly different plan. And then, with the Rick Warren fiasco, it manages to get even worse still.
There is, in short, good reason for suspicion and even anger on the left. I’m not there yet, and hope not to be. Not because I’m a Barack groupie. Far from it. My attitude toward him and anyone else is to wait and see before judging. In any case, I remain still rather hopeful for two reasons. One is that conditions are already pushing the new administration and the country inexorably to the left. And the other is that, within some minor limitations, I really don’t care who is secretary of this or secretary of that. What I care about is policy, and the broad strokes of policy are typically made by the guy sitting behind the sign that notes where the buck stops. So if Obama ends the Iraq war but has Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates staff it out, I’m happy. If he makes major efforts to rebalance the distribution of wealth in this country but Timothy Geithner is Secretary of the Treasury, I don’t much care, to be honest.
Indeed, there is every possibility that his cabinet picks and other decisions are yet another demonstration of the wisdom that is Barack Obama, in a sort of ‘keep your enemies even closer’ kind of way. How soon, and how ardently, do you think Rick Warren is going to be out there criticizing the new administration? And if Obama does more such coopting of the center and even center-right, as he has in fact already been doing quite effectively, how much more ridiculous will the loonies of the GOP and the freaks on the radio look, off by themselves, trying to tear him down?
So I’m hopeful. All the conditions are there. A country demanding change, if not rescue. A thoroughly repudiated opposition. A public and in fact an entire world strongly committed to the success of the Obama presidency. And a skilled and wise occupant of the Oval Office about to be handed the keys to government.
Of course, I remain wary and gimlet-eyed for the moment. Everyone should. This is, after all, government we’re talking about, and these are, after all, politicians. Moreover, Obama has already given us some minor reasons to be concerned.
At the same time, this is the most hopeful political moment of my life.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.