After three years in office, Barack Obama remains an enigma. After the Rorschach shattered where we could project almost any yearning we had onto him, a more realistic and lasting view of him has yet to replace the fantasy. He has great moments, like the speech last night, when he shines a searchlight through the fog that engulfs our future and we are beckoned to follow, and then long moments of frustrating torpor.
Is it us, i.e., Democrats and independents, who have the problem of hanging onto an immature ideal of what a president can do? Or is it him, the president, for forgetting that leadership isn’t just being right intellectually but having the will to power, charm, conjole and force your ideas into practice?
The best recent article I have read about Obama’s presidency is by Ryan Lizza. In it, he takes us through several major White House decisions of the last few years, including the stimulus package and health care. He has staff memos that show the president trying — earnestly and time after time — to implement compromise with Republicans to make Washington work. He repeatedly rejects more expansive solutions and quickly embraces deficit reduction as a way of steering a middle course. But, as we all know, to no avail.
The article makes me introduce a third party into the question of the unrealized potential of the Obama presidency: “them.” The Lizza article points to data that explain the disappearance of the political center and thus the impossibility of the compromise Obama was seeking. But both sides are not equal in their zeal. In the Senate, Republicans have moved twice as far to the right as Democrats have to the left, and in the House six times more.
It has led Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, longtime congressional observers and as about as on the level as they get in Washington to conclude in unusually blunt terms:
“One of our two major parties (Republicans) has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of the facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
So this is the political landscape that the president is coming to accept, if not relish. His speech last night fit his effective strategy of the last few months. Expose Republican intransigence. Turn its energy against it. (Perhaps the memos were leaked to support such a scenario.)
There is power in this approach, set as it is against the reality of the majority Republican approach — those in the provinces who would hoist Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich or even Rick Santorum — anybody but Mitt Romney — and march, and those in the Capitol who hear and fear their drumbeat. Yes, many are disappointed in Obama but are beginning to perceive it isn’t all his fault and that the alternative is much worse. Perhaps we are entering a more productive stage of grief.