Change we can facilitate in
Obama’s views on gay marriage are, apparently, “evolving.” Andrew Sullivan has the right take on this: “His politics are evolving more like it.” Or, perhaps more to the point, the politics of gay marriage are evolving, and Obama is simply keeping up. “If you see this presidency as one committed to ‘leading from behind,’ ” continues Sullivan, “it all makes some kind of sense. It may be that by the end of his eight years, he will emerge as the most significant president for gay equality. But he will have presided over it, not led it. I think that’s how he sees the presidency as a whole.”
If that’s how Obama sees it, then he sees it correctly. Presidents campaign promising to create change, but they govern by facilitating it. The model of the persuasive president inspiring the country to support what they previously opposed has virtually never been borne out in American political history. Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t manage it with World War II. Ronald Reagan, to his great frustration, couldn’t convince Americans of the importance of the Sandinistas, and domestically, support for government spending rose throughout his presidency. Bill Clinton couldn’t do it with health care. George W. Bush’s post-election campaign for Social Security reform was a humiliating failure. Obama is a pretty good speaker, but he’s seen the poll numbers for health-care reform, cap-and-trade, the stimulus and the Afghanistan war plummet over the past three years.
When presidents succeed in presiding over great change, they do so by recognizing an existing opportunity, not squeezing one from the stone of existing opposition. Obama correctly saw that 60 Democrats in the Senate and 240 in the House had cleared the way for health-care reform. Bush realized that 9/11 opened the door for the Iraq War. Clinton understood that the preferences of the Republican Congress and the economic growth of the ’90s created space for a Democrat to balance the budget and reform welfare. Reagan sensed that stagnation had prepared the American people for a radically different economic philosophy. FDR knew to push America’s intervention into World War II by incrementally moving forward with arguments based on new events.
But presidents don’t campaign on a realistic vision of the presidency. It’s all grand promises and soaring speeches and “change you can believe in.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “It is one of the weird features of American democracy that politicians are both expected to reflect the beliefs of Americans, and at the same time pretend that they are reflecting their own views. Obama could never explicitly say, ‘Hey, I’m for gay marriage, but most Americans aren’t, so I can’t support it.’ ”
Similarly, it is a weird feature of American democracy that presidents must pretend that whatever Congress has passed is exactly what they wanted, and can’t say, “$700 billion in stimulus is better than nothing, but it’s not enough, and we need to be prepared to do more in a year or so.” Just as Obama’s political views are evolving to catch up to his personal views on gay marriage, it’d be wise for the country’s view of the president’s power to evolve towards the realities of the office.