In a speech at a California fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee last week, President Obama offered a remarkably candid assessment of how he has tried — and failed — to change Washington. Two paragraphs, in particular, stand out.
“I am frustrated, and you have every right to be frustrated, because Congress doesn’t work the way it should,” Obama said, describing a conversation with a disenchanted voter. “Issues are left untended. Folks are more interested in scoring political points than getting things done, not because any individual member of Congress is a bad person — there are a lot of good, well-meaning, hard-working people out there — but because the incentives that have been built into the system reward short term, reward a polarized politics, reward being simplistic instead of being true, reward division.
“And as mightily as I have struggled against that, I told him, you’re right. It still is broken. But I reminded him that when I ran in 2008, I, in fact, did not say I would fix it; I said we could fix it. I didn’t say, ‘Yes, I can’; I said — what? . . . ‘Yes, we can.’ ”
Obama’s comments in California were the second time in a 24-hour period in which he expressed resignation to the political realities of Washington, more weary pragmatist than an optimistic change agent.
Earlier Thursday, speaking about the killing of nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C., the night before, Obama started angry, but that emotion quickly faded to grudging acceptance.
“It is in our power to do something about it,” Obama said about the mass murders with guns in recent years. “I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it.”
Obama’s framing of his inability to change Washington is, not surprisingly, cast in the best possible light for him: I tried, but politics is so broken that not even I (and remember that Obama, like almost all politicians, has a very healthy self-regard) could fix it. I can’t make people do things they just won’t do. I can’t bend the system to work properly. No one can.
(Obama’s failure to enact gun-control measures following the murders of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., undoubtedly was much on his mind in his post-Charleston statement.)
What that framing of his two terms in office does is remove much his agency from the well-documented struggles to bring the two parties together on, well, anything. It’s the intractable realities of political Washington that are to blame, not him. And, as Obama made clear in California, he always knew it was such; “I didn’t say, ‘Yes, I can.’ I said . . . ‘Yes, we can.’ ”
That’s a bit of revisionist history given the way he talked about his candidacy in 2008. Here’s Obama accepting the Democratic nomination in Denver in 2008:
“You understand that, in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result. You have shown what history teaches us, that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.”
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
The entirety of Obama’s candidacy was premised on the idea that choosing politicians with familiar backgrounds had gotten us into this mess and that the only way out of it was to choose someone, like him, with a decidedly nontraditional background.
Implicit — and sometimes explicit — in Obama’s pitch to the American public was the idea that he was uniquely able to solve the unsolvable problems that had vexed Washington through Democratic and Republican presidents alike. (Remember that he ran hard against many of the principles that defined the presidency of Bill Clinton, a tactic that drove the former president nuts.)
That unique ability was based in two ideas: 1. Obama’s background — he is the son of a white mother and an African father and was raised by his grandparents in Hawaii — had created a person who understood how to move between various groups, how to talk the talk and walk the walk of the various segments of society. 2. Obama’s entire life — particularly his relatively short time in office — was proof that he could unite un-unitable coalitions and, not for nothing, persuade people far outside of the Democratic base to support him. (He carried Indiana, for Pete’s sake!)
Obama’s decision to tackle the overhaul of the nation’s health-care system at the start of his first term was born of this belief. Sure, lots and lots of other presidents had failed. But, in his mind, he wasn’t lots and lots of other presidents. He was Barack Obama, and he would figure it out. He would crack the code.
Everything else in his presidency flowed from that decision. While he did (eventually) do what so many presidents before him had failed at, the cost of getting health care done was enormous, both in terms of the down-ballot losses it inflicted on his party and the distrust it drove — not created but drove — with Republicans.
Health care proved to Republicans that Obama wasn’t really a uniter. And it proved to Obama that Republicans would never, ever work with him on honest terms. The rest is history.
No one is blameless in this. Obama’s assertion that he never thought he could be a historic change agent isn’t proved out by how he positioned himself when he ran for the White House. Republicans’ insistence that they were ready and willing to work with Obama and that he simply refused doesn’t acknowledge the president’s attempts to do just that and their refusal to respond in kind for, in no small part, political reasons.
Regardless, the seven years of the Obama presidency remind all of us that the political system is bigger, more powerful and more broken than any one person — no matter who that person is or the circumstances that surround that person’s election — could hope to solve.
That’s the hard lesson Obama has learned.