December 31, 2009
The year began in giddy hope. George W. Bush, that wrecker of worlds, was at long last on his way out, and Barack Obama, the multifaceted symbol of change, was on his way in. The country was sliding into recession and bogged down in amorphous "wars" against terrorism and for nation-building or whatever, and as in 1933, the stars seemed aligned to provide the right leader for the times, a man with a new vision for a just society and a foreign policy of openness and cooperation. Here, people were calling Obama the new FDR, and in Germany, the father of a friend of mine called him Der Weltpresident — the World-President.
Inauguration Day on the Capitol Mall was a love-feast, people coming together from all over to partake in an event to tell their grandchildren about. Cheek to jowl in the bitter cold, Pilgrim patricians and descendants of slaves, immigrants and refugees, and all in between swayed to the music in celebration of the first Black president, the living icon of America as ideal.
It was all about hope, which only in exceptional cases is also about politics. We should have prepared ourselves for disappointment.
So at year's end, what have we got? A convoluted health-care reform bill passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve, awaiting a long reconciliation fight with the House version; yet more troops marked for Afghanistan; no change on climate change; stasis on energy, transportation, and agriculture; ten percent unemployment. But wait! Guantanamo is closing! The big banks are saved! And don't forget cash for clunkers!
There is indeed much to be glad about within the executive branch: The Justice Department has regained its integrity; Obama's first appointment to the Supreme Court, Sonya Sotomayor, was shrewdly chosen and confirmed speedily; the Interior Department was purged of corruption; the Environmental Protection Agency started re-growing its teeth. But most programs requiring legislation have been tepid at the proposal stage and surprisingly weak in the follow-through.
Those not blinded by the mantra of "change" had already had their suspicions during the campaign. Candidate Obama occasionally apportioned some soaring rhetoric towards a fundamental realignment of priorities in transportation, energy, agriculture, environment, but his approach to the issues occupying the attention of the debates and the interviews amounted to tinkering with the status quo: On health care, he positioned himself to the right of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton; on Afghanistan, he labeled it a "war of necessity." His pitch at the time was toward the middle class, no mention made of closing the gap between rich and poor.
Once elected, and with that overwhelming sentiment of good will, he could have afforded to embolden his positions on the social and economic fronts. He could have mobilized that enormous database of supporters he'd amassed during the campaign to pressure Congress to pass just about whatever he wanted. But caution trumped audacity, most tellingly in the health-care dynamic, where he let go of the reins and let the Congress take them, Democrats pulling one way and Republicans the other. His dream of dialogue (remember the microcosmal Beer Summit?) remained a dream because dreams don't come true by themselves. To pass Medicare in 1965, Lyndon Johnson was on the phone with Republicans day and night, twisting arms and making deals. Instead, Obama put faith in "the legislative process," which is actually the lobbying and propaganda process, and what finally passed was compromise compromised.
It may be that Obama turns out to be a political genius, tacking this way and that, thwarting left and right as he's done with Afghanistan, ordering buildup and promising withdrawal in the same stroke.
But there is the unmistakable air of contrivance in all this, best illustrated by the relocation of the detention facility in Guantanamo to a prison in Illinois: Obama fulfills his pledge to close down Guantanamo while leaving intact the underlying Constitutional issue of holding people for years without trial.
What do we have as our president, an agent of change or the ghost of G. W. Bush?
It's only been a year, and there is much more drama to come. Will "hope" regain at least something of its audacity? Will there be a second love-feast on the Capitol Mall?