There is a fairly common narrative going around the country today within Democratic and liberal political circles, that President Obama’s first term has been a failure. Not in terms of getting things done, per se, but in terms of living up to the hype of hope and end of partisanship that he so eloquently stated he would bring to Washington, DC and the country at large. I disagree.
I don’t disagree that there was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding the then first-term Senator, or that the Obama campaign took advantage of that hype to propel Mr. Obama into the White House. However, my disagreement stems from the idea that President Obama has failed to live up to this hype, or that he has failed to move beyond partisanship. You blanch?
The hope surrounding candidate Obama was that he was going to “change Washington”. While the specific understanding of this concept is rather muddled and ambiguous, and understood differently by almost every person in the country, the general idea was that the cronyism, corruption and extreme partisanship needed to end. So Mr. Obama swoops into Washington with a Democratically-controlled Congress, both House and Senate, and people start saying that what they always say when either chamber of Congress changes from one party to the other, that the President has a mandate. Just as a small digression, I will say that I hate this term mandate, as it undeservedly gives whoever is using an almost carte blanche authority to do whatever they want in the name of it. Tangent aside, Democrats eagerly got busy on their plan for overturning many of the more unpopular and unproductive policies of the Bush administration. President Obama welcomed Republicans, even though a large minority, to bring ideas to the table for shaping policy moving forward. The president tried to create transparency in government, and figure out what were some major policy matters that both sides wanted to deal with.
It was just about this time that the idea of reforming the healthcare system came to the forefront. For the next several months congress fought this issue back and forth, with the Republicans adding little to no actual policy suggestions, but instead repeating the message that the whole bill should be scrapped and the process started anew (euphemism for “kill the bill”). Republicans did not want healthcare reform; both because they thought jobs and the economy should be the number one focus of congress, and also because they – like Democrats in congress – had insurance and prescription drug lobbyists breathing down their necks, and stuffing money in their drawers. So the president did what he could to remain above the fray, while reasserting to both Democrats and Republicans alike, that this was going to be the most comprehensive healthcare reform in the last 50 years, and that they needed to figure out how to bolster care, provide options, and reduce costs. Republicans wanted nothing to do with this, so Democrats were left to fight this battle out themselves and suffered devastating scars from the battle.
Democrats not only got a bad healthcare reform bill, but suffered devastating losses in the 2010 midterm elections. The Republicans gained a few seats in the Senate, and won a huge number of seats in the House, thereby taking back one of the chambers. The president, though crestfallen over the demoralizing losses Democrats suffered in the elections, was nonetheless prepared to remain above the fray and work with Republicans on creating sound policy. What the president didn’t see coming was the influx of hard-lined tea party freshman that were not willing to work with moderate Republicans, Democrats, or especially the president on anything. Their view of government was that it was too big, and they saw their wins a sort of directive to begin the long, slow process of killing it from the inside.
Republicans, in typical “do anything to win” fashion, decided that they had to pander to the extreme tea party wing of their party, and as a result, the whole party shifted further to the right – both with regard to fiscal and social policy.
President Obama responded in his typical conciliatory fashion, welcoming the new members to congress and telling them that he was excited to work together. The new members were less than excited, however, to work with the president, or anyone else for that matter, and were hell bent on cutting government spending, taxes and any form of social “welfare” (i.e. any and all government programs) that they could. Their goal had nothing to do with creating jobs, but instead was simply pandering to their dogmatic ideology and the loud extremists that supported it.
Obama has since spent from then until now grinding out weak legislation after weak legislation, all in an effort to get something – anything – done, but continuously getting a stick in the eye from Republicans; both on the weak legislation itself, but also on his failure to lead. It’s a bizarre world. The president has made an effort to not only include Republicans in the discussion, but have given them more than ample representation in the bills he’s helped produce, even to the detriment of his own ideological principles. While some may see that as weakness, it’s actually showing a lot of strength and leadership, and the president is now taking flak from all sides for his neutrality.
I think the bottom line is that the fact that both Democrats and Republicans are unhappy with the president is a testament to what a good job he’s doing. Neither party really cares what party the president is a part of, as long as he’s willing to do whatever they want him to do. This president isn’t doing anything ideological for either party, and therefore neither of them can stand him for it. Although the American people might be frustrated by how ineffective government seems to be these days, it’s not the president that should take the blame, because he actually is doing what he said he was going to do, and he has brought change to Washington, it’s just that congress hasn’t yet received the memo.
To quote the Alfred from The Dark Knight, speaking of how Batman must be the bad guy for a while to do the right thing, “Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They'll hate you for it, but that's the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.” This is what Obama is doing, and this is what he will continue to do. It might cost him the 2012 election (although I’m not really sure who to, as the Republicans have a very weak field), but he will continue to do what he has to do, and sign weak legislation, because that’s what he knows he has to do to get Republicans and Democrats to work together.