Something real quick on a thing I’ve thought for the past six years and am amazed folks keep missing.
Here’s Ezra Klein talking about the gap between what Obama promised for his presidency and what (and also, especially, how) he achieved:
From 2009 to 2010, Obama, while seeking the post-partisan presidency he wanted, established the brutally partisan presidency he got. Virtually every achievement Krugman recounts — the health-care law, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, the financial rescue, the stimulus bill — passed in these first two years when Democrats held huge majorities in congress. And every item on the list passed over screaming Republican opposition. The first two years of the Obama administration are the story of Obama being haunted by his promises of a postpartisan presidency, and choosing, again and again, to pass bills at the cost of worsening partisanship.
Like, accurate, but also completely missing the point.
Yeah, I know, Obama promised to be post-partisan and to bring America together. Just like George W. Bush said he’d be a “uniter, not a divider.” Obama said it in his first national speech, his most famous address, perhaps his best oratory of his life:
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.
Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.
There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.
The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.
We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?
Let’s be clear. Obama had — at the 2004 Democratic National Convention — just read off a laundry list of liberal priorities: health care, education, the protection of constitutional liberties. And now he was telling us in (a way that was accurate culturally but incorrect electorally) that Americans were despite all evidence to the contrary, a united people. (Americans are desperate to hear that they’re united. It’s such a fragile part of their psyche that they put the word united right into the name of their country.)
And now he proves that by saying that liberals like innocuous things like baseball and god (duh, says every liberal listening — or, more like, that’s right!) while conservatives like gay people and freedom from surveillance. (In 2004, this wasn’t so: there’s a fair argument that ballot measures opposing gay marriage drove conservative turnout to a great enough extent to ensure Bush’s re-election; the GOP was zealously promoting the PATRIOT Act during the years prior to this speech.) And that bit about patriots who support and patriots who oppose the war in Iraq? This was only radical for the use of the word “oppose”: liberals were terribly stung by Republican accusations that their opposition to the war amounted to an opposition to America. Why do you think they endorsed a Vietnam War vet as their presidential candidate?
Or look at Obama running for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008:
Because at a time when so many people are struggling to keep up with soaring costs in a sluggish economy, we know that the status quo in Washington just won’t do. Not this time. Not this year. We can’t keep playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expect a different result — because it’s a game that ordinary Americans are losing.
Here’s the thing about that status quo: it was Republican. When the Democrats listening to this speech heard about “the same Washington game with the same Washington players,” they were thinking about seven years of Republican governance, of tax cuts and deficits and disrespect.
The Obama campaign talked about bipartisanship, about changing the way Washington works, but its genius lay in the way it imparted two messages at once by doing so. To its liberal supporters, it promised a bipartisan America where conservatives would realise that they supported Democratic ideas all along (“we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states … we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”) Not, note, a bipartisan America where Democrats and Republicans would draw together to compromise over tax reform or single-payer health care or a stimulus. Obama proposed to his liberal base that bipartisanship should mean an embrace of liberalism.
(This is radical, really, because liberals, hairshirted pricks that they are, love to tell one another about how removed from the American mainstream they are. Foolish promises that America believes in the same ideas you do is usually for conservatives. Obama convinced liberals that they might actually be America.)
That wasn’t what you heard if you were a disgruntled Republican or a disengaged independent. You heard a president saying things about bipartisanship that stirred your American fondness for national unity.
Same with the bit about changing the way Washington works. Liberals heard that the way Washington works would change in the most important way — Republicans would no longer be in charge of it. The rest heard bromides about bipartisanship.
Obama knew who he was talking to. He was talking to liberals. So let’s not pretend like he ever promised a golden age where through sheer force of personality alone he could bring Democrats and Republicans together under the spirit of compromise. He tried to enact his ideology on the grounds that it is what the nation wanted. It’s what politicians do.
The fact that people are still convinced he really wanted moderation and compromise speaks to his political success, really.
Obama told liberals that they could be the American mainstream. He was smart enough to do it in a way that even made conservatives think he was saying he would govern through consensus.