November 11, 2010
The higher the hope, the deeper the disappointment.
Just two years ago, it looked like Morning in the Universe. Late on election night here in the South Bronx, people poured into the streets shouting "O-bam-AH! O-bam-AH!" Halfway across the world, in Germany, the father of a friend of mine told his son, "Er ist der Weltpresident" — "He's the World-President."
It looks a bit different now, even from the horse's mouth. As President Obama told political satirist Jon Stewart, "What I would say is: Yes we can, BUT — but, it's not going to happen overnight."
It's hard to tell whether the Republican comeback in the midterms portends a one-term president, a permanent lame duck. As the historians have pointed out, many other presidents whose party took a drubbing halfway through — Clinton, Reagan, Truman, even Franklin Roosevelt — reclaimed the electorate's confidence and won second terms.
Can this president do it?
The answer may lie in lining up rhetoric with reality.
Remember those heady first days of the administration — the conciliatory speech to the Muslim world at Cairo, the rapprochement to Cuba at the Summit of the Americas, the "transpartisan" gatherings with Congressional leaders on economic stimulus and health-care reform? Remember the Nobel Peace Prize and the Copenhagen climate-change conference?
Where has it all gone? Thirty-thousand more troops to Afghanistan, deadlock on Palestine, hardly a word or deed on Cuba, no progress on climate, the near-blind eye to post- earthquake Haiti. Domestically, we got an anemic economic stimulus, dithering on the BP blowup, a health-care law that nobody really understands.
The legislative dynamic on health care reveals a great deal. Obama's first mistake was to leave the fashioning of the bill to Congress instead of presenting his own version up front. This came partly from his lingering belief that the sausage-makers could cut a good steak, and also that the chastened Republicans, repudiated and supposedly in disarray, could not hang together. He also underestimated the fractiousness of his own party, all those Blue-Dog Democrats who rode his coattails into office and then promptly jumped off. In hindsight, the better course would have been the incremental — tiny little bills agreeable to all, eliminating pre-existing conditions, closing the "donut hole" in the Medicare drug law — things that, one by one, nobody could deny, and building upon them. What we got was sausage, parts of which almost everyone found indigestible. This, coupled with the Democrats' ramrod passage of the bill by arcane parliamentary procedures, left the public — even some ardent supporters — feeling dispossessed and impotent. From this came the revolt of the masses in the "town hall" meetings in the summer of 2009, and the birth of the Tea Party movement.
Through all this, Obama's rhetorical skills evaporated when it came to interpreting his policies and motivating people to back them. The prophetic did not translate to the pragmatic. Somehow der Weltpresident found himself unable to provide the nation and the world with compelling moral arguments for his proposals; indeed, as his proposals shrank in size and scope, it seemed like he could not even provide compelling moral arguments to himself. Dismissing Gandhi and King, two of his philosophical inspirations, he turned to the "practical theologian " Reinhold Niebuhr, reading him either too closely or too superficially.
It is possible to be both a politician and a prophet, getting things done while giving people hope in a new and better order. Lincoln did it, FDR did it, Obama was poised to do it. But he could not establish the link between the prophetic and the pragmatic, a fact quite evident in the contrast between his speeches and his interviews and press conferences, soaring rhetoric replaced by hesitant hedging.
Never once has he taken on the Tea Party on philosophical grounds, even though as a constitutional lawyer he could best them at every turn. He has let them command the argument, with all of its nonsense about taxation without representation and "taking back the ‘gubment' for the American people." If ever there was a target for a constitutional lawyer, the eye-doctor Ron Paul should be one, but for some reason — not to appear elitist? — he holds his fire.
In 2008, a majority of the American people endorsed his rhetoric of hope. Can he save his presidency by applying it to reality?