Speaking before his intoxicated supporters in the wake of his Super Tuesday triumph during the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama spoke in soaring prose befitting the historic occasion. His rhetoric reached a crescendo with the crowd-pleasing declaration, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Obama’s detractors saw in this breathtaking grandiosity—the use of the royal “we” particularly riled—but the future president’s words revealed less about him than about his devotees, whose yearning for deliverance grew from eight catastrophic years of right-wing recklessness that sent the country into accelerated decline. The Promised Land was now in reach.
It was almost too easy. If the fertile deposits left by Bush’s devastating flood would nourish a new progressive era, little more would be required of those eager for its arrival than casting a ballot for Obama. The silver-tongued Savior would do the rest once elected. But it didn’t work out that way. A presidential-election cycle later finds those once confident about being the ones they were waiting for still waiting—and not so confident.
Responsibility for unfilled expectations begins at the top. During his presidential campaign, Obama also spoke of being a transformational figure uniquely capable of uniting left and right. Many saw the pitch as mere campaign sloganeering, however, pan-partisanship actually became a governing strategy. While forging ahead in this way might have worked if a broad political consensus existed, it was foolhardy at a time of great societal cleavage when no center can be coopted because none exists—there’s no there there.
For their part, conservatives, animated by an activist base that sees the president as fundamentally illegitimate, adopted a strategic policy of obstructionism. “My agenda this congressional term,” Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell confessed, “is to ensure Barak Obama is a one–term President.” Yet Obama continues to engage his Republican opponents in the audacious hope that compromise is achievable. Sizing up the president’s character, Drew Westin of Emory University writes in the New York Times that Obama “ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.”
Still, Obama’s shortcomings do not fully explain why his presidency has proven so wanting. His blinkered supporters have forgotten their history: previous progressive eras were not led from above but rather from below. The New Deal and Great Society did not come about by executive fiat; both were the culmination of the worker and civil rights movements, respectively, which put unrelenting pressure on Washington. The war was won at the barricades, not in the halls of power.
By contrast, as columnist Peter Beinart observes, “No one believes, as many did in the mid-1930s and mid-1960s, that if presidential reform fails, blood will spill in the streets.” This gives the right license to obstruct, since it faces no ill consequence for doing so. It also means that the president, unlike his great Democratic predecessors, is actually ahead of the curve, not behind it, which is a recipe for failure.
Adding to Obama’s woes are institutional impediments, including the Senate filibuster (an extra-Constitutional mechanism now used regularly) and a Democratic Party largely beholden to the same moneyed interests that control the GOP. The game is rigged, the outcome assured. Ain’t nothing getting done in Washington nowadays, unless it’s rolling back decades of progressive legislation that is the lifeblood of our precious and fragile democracy.
Change, then, must come from below, a process already underway in Israel, Spain, and Greece, amongst other places, which have all experienced massive demonstrations motivated by anger at political elites. Even the riots in England are partially symptomatic of the same discontent. The question is not if but when will the same dissatisfaction be manifested here, and will it be channeled productively.
In the 1930s, demonstrators marched through the streets of London carrying a banner reading “Organize or Starve.” The three-word message was blunt: Protecting one’s economic interests against rapaciousness and greed required effort, vigilance. It was war. This is as true today as it was during the Depression. Waiting for others to do our bidding only guarantees that “we” won’t be the ones we’ve been waiting for but rather the ones waiting for handouts in the bread lines. Others are re-learning the lesson. Now it’s our turn.
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