Promises, promises



My expanded Sunday print column, with a few tweaks and updates:


Happy first anniversary, Barack Obama. Although happy is probably the wrong word.

When he took the oath last Jan. 20 – nearly one year ago – he reiterated his campaign promise to be a transformational president who would cure our ills and cleanse our politics. In his Inauguration speech, he proclaimed “unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” and an end to "the petty grievances…the recriminations and worn-out dogmas."

How’s that all working out so far?

Part of the problem is that candidate Obama over-promised. Right from the outset, in his February '07 declaration-of-candidacy speech, he billed himself as a transformative figure: "This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes and your dreams...Few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change."

But governing in a highly polarized era is all about the immovability of obstacles - the tortured and semi-dysfunctional legislative process, the often-poisonous 24/7 news cycle, the uneven playing field dominated by the moneyed interests. And governing in the midst of a killer recession is even tougher, given the public's tendency during such times to lash out at the incumbent party - as Obama may well discover tomorrow when the votes are tallied in the Massachusetts Senate election.

Democrats tend to over-promise anyway, because they yearn to think big and govern actively. Jimmy Carter sold himself during the ’76 campaign as a breath of fresh air who would craft energy reform and purge Washington of its lingering Watergate taint. He failed. Bill Clinton promised health care reform and an end to partisan bickering. He failed.

They vowed to change Washington, but Washington changed them. Just like Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes, those Democratic presidents learned that the job is really one long slog, punctuated by ups and downs. Obama is learning this now. Millions of Americans who voted for him in 2008 are now voicing disappointment and judging him harshly, precisely because they didn’t expect another slog. They thought that Obama would really be different.

The thing is, Americans always think the new guy will be different. It’s in our character to fall in love all over again with promises of a new dawn, a New Frontier, a Great Society, a New Freedom, a New Deal, a New Covenant (Clinton’s short-lived slogan). But this is a difficult country to govern - arguably harder than ever, given the heightened ideological warfare exacerbated by the Internet – which is why any promised new dawn is likely to be as enduring as the New Coke.

Actually, a case can be made that Obama posted a decent first year. He has taken health care reform farther than any other president, and now stands a good chance of inking the most far-reaching (albeit imperfect) redefinition of the American social compact since Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security law. His economic stimulus plan has blunted the nation’s recessionary free fall, at least according to most economists. He has set a new tone in our dealings with the rest of the world, dialing down his predecessor’s unilateralism. He signed an expansion of childrens' health insurance, and a law making it easier for women to sue over unfair wages. In fact, the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll reports that 53 percent of Americans approve of Obama's job performance - mirroring the 53 percent share of the electorate that he captured in the '08 campaign - and 58 percent say they currently have a "favorable impression" of the guy.

Yet, in the same poll, only 41 percent say that Obama has kept his promises, with 46 percent saying otherwise; and, in response to another question, 52 percent say that he has accomplished little or nothing. These sentiments can be partly attributed to the fact that expectations were initially so high. Change was a great campaign buzzword because it stoked turnout, especially among the young. Now comes the reckoning. He’ll start his second year without having put his name on any transformational legislation, and although one can assign some of that blame to the Republicans, who are waging permanent warfare against him, Obama had promised his most credulous followers that he would somehow surmount such petty obstacles by dint of his powerful office - and presence.

For many Americans, part of the frustration is that Obama seems so ideologically elusive. The right sees him as a liberal/radical/socialist/utopian, while the left sees him as a corporate accomodationist who is all too willing to sell out liberal principles. So many of us feel that we’d know him better if we could just label him accurately. Yet he defies labels. He sets big goals but generally settles for compromises, and there is nothing very sexy about accepting half a loaf.

That has been Obama’s approach to health reform, but he’s hardly the first president to elude labels and embrace pragmatism. Abraham Lincoln was reviled by partisans on all sides for precisely those reasons. To get a taste of Lincoln’s thought process, here’s something he wrote in 1862: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that." You think that guy would’ve stood firm on the health care public option?

Speaking of Lincoln, he basically achieved zip on Capitol Hill during his first year, and was so ridiculed as a war leader that his own military commander, General George McClellan, openly dismissed him in 1861 as "a well-meaning baboon."

Other presidents were notoriously slow starters.  John F. Kennedy was hit with the Bay of Pigs debacle during his rookie year, he got beaten up by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at their first summit, and his domestic ambitions were thwarted by a Democratic Congress. Even FDR failed to remake America in his first year; although he did blunt the banking crisis, most of the pillars of his first New Deal were knocked out by the courts. He signed the aforementioned Social Security law during his third year, after taking heat from the left for compromising so much.

I’m therefore suggesting - at the risk of prompting Obama-haters to spontaneously combust – that it may be too early to render a decisive verdict on the new president.

While we all tend to marinate in the passions of the moment, his presidency will hinge on what happens over time. We don’t know how the benefits and costs of health reform will play out. We don’t know how the war in Afghanistan will play out, or whether he ‘ll be compelled to confront crises far worse than the underpants bomber. We don’t yet know whether the jobs will come back. All we do know is that vicious partisan strife will continue as a way of life, impervious to his desire.

Ronald Reagan once said, "Politics is just like show business. You have a hell of an opening, you coast for awhile, you have a hell of a closing." One year after Obama’s helluva opening, the Reagan formula might well prove to be a sufficient aspiration.