It has not taken long for former supporters of president Barack Obama, particularly on the Democratic Party’s left wing, to label Obama’s presidency a disappointment. Obama ran for president largely to counter eight years of increasingly radical conservatism under George W. Bush, with its legacy characterized by war in Iraq, economic decline, and heedlessness, anti-intellectualism, anti-scientism, and much else. Faced with recession and foreign wars and an overall collapse of American confidence, the public wanted results from the man in whom they had entrusted so much faith.
With the expectations of the nation weighing heavily on him, Obama sought to enact a range of ambitious reforms at the start of his term. But faced with the enormity of the country’s problems and hampered by an obstructionist and increasingly radical Republican congress, Obama found his small political and legislative victories to be a far cry from the grand ambitions that he his supporters had hoped for.
Many criticized the modest scale of economic stimulus; his refusal to act firmly against the worst behavior on Wall Street; his failure to take strong action on the environment, gun control, gay marriage, and human rights issues. A presidency that had begun with two million people on the Washington Mall and an atmosphere of radical change soon collapsed into the sort of partisan deadlock that the country could hardly afford.
With rare exception, liberal critiques of Obama center not on his ideology, but rather on his demeanor and character. “Weak,” “conciliatory,” “incompetent” and “unstrategic” have all been used to describe Obama’s behavior in office. These censures are important because they come from people who have fundamentally changed their opinions towards the President and could potentially vote against him –– or stay home –– in 2012. But perhaps liberals should redirect their evaluation of Obama, as they fail to consider the radical transformation of the opposition, the current Republican Party.
Obama is not the first President whose party is the minority in one or both houses of Congress, but rarely before has a president faced such staunch congressional opposition, particularly during a period of severe economic crisis. The powerfully persuasive Democratic presidents who so many yearn for Obama to mimic—particularly the domestically accomplished Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson—faced vastly different circumstances. Aside from Roosevelt’s first two years in office, both FDR and LBJ had the good fortune to work with decisive and pliable majorities in both houses of Congress. Furthermore, it is impossible to overstate the change in the Republican Party. In the post-war era, the Republican Party featured right-wing conservatives, to be sure, but also moderate establishment “country club” conservatives and even a healthy number of liberals like Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Charle Percy of Illinois, and Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Richard Nixon himself began the Environmental Protection Agency and social welfare programs. In today’s GOP, with its absolutist litmus tests on taxes, abortion, and many other issues, a national candidate capable of such flexibility is unimaginable.
Obama has been confronted by a political atmosphere with nearly unprecedented rejectionists. The Senate leader Mitch McConnell has declared that his singular goal as a leader and legislator is to defeat Obama in 2012. That is, his primary value is not to create jobs, lower the national debt, or clean the air we breathe and the water we hope to drink; his primary value is partisan political power. And this is true even more so, for the increasingly obdurate leaders of the House—men like Eric Cantor of Virginia.
What frustrates so many is to watch the president react to this ferocity with calm, with a never-ending desire to find common ground, to compromise. But perhaps what some have deemed a “character defect,” as Professor Drew Weston did in a recent New York Times editorial, is actually a principled method of conflict resolution that finds its roots not in American presidential history, but rather in the Civil Rights Movement. Time and again, Obama has taken the moral high ground and maintained his dignity, refusing to stoop to the level of his opponents. By setting up such a stark contrast between himself and radical conservatives, Obama has allowed the public to recognize their cruelty and hypocrisy.
Take, for example, the recent debate over jobs creation. To the surprise of many, and no doubt the consternation of some, the American public is generally inclined toward Obama’s jobs plan. Recent polls by Gallup and Princeton Survey Research Associates International show that more Americans want their representatives in Congress to vote for the Obama jobs plan than against it. To sway the public to his side, Obama used the tactics that have been his mainstay throughout his presidency: reason, justice, pragmatism, and calm. In other words, he used the dignity of his office and his demeanor to make his point, with minimal negative rhetorical flourish and a great deal of common sense. In this way, he has been able to persuade even people who do not approve of his performance as president to approve of this plan. To many, he likely seemed the only restrained, focused adult in a room filled with children throwing tantrums. Even if they will not admit it or cannot articulate it, on a very basic level, Americans are showing trust in him on the particular, if not the general.
Perhaps Obama is succumbing to the harsh reality that, given the circumstances and a looming election, he is unlikely to pass any substantial reform for the remainder of his first term. In that case, his best and really only choice is to try to stop the bleeding of the economy for now, while getting public sentiment on his side. Hopefully, he will be able to leverage this into success for the Democrats in the upcoming election and use this support to enact policy reform in a second term.
Liberals call Obama politically naïve when it comes to the nature of the obstructionist Republicans, as if he has not spent hours negotiating with Cantor and McConnell face-to-face. They put more faith in Frank Rich and Paul Krugman than Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, as if either of those columnists have ever gotten a piece of legislation passed. Obama is compared to the feeble Jimmy Carter, as if other presidents are the only historical frame of reference.
As I watched the jobs debate unfold, I was often reminded of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins from the Civil Rights Movement. Obama sits at the negotiating table much like those kids sat at that Woolworth’s counter a half-century ago. As Cantor and the rest dump the proverbial ketchup on the president’s head, calling him a communist and an igniter of class warfare, Obama sits there, absorbing it all. Those kids may not have gotten their lunch, but they will forever be remembered as heroes. And history will smile upon Obama, too, as he continues to fight for liberal values with the greatest of dignity.
Noah Remnick is a freshman in Saybrook College.