Obama Won. Now What?

I may not be unique in the following regard, but I’m not as excited about Obama winning tonight as I was the first time. I guess that’s not a surprise; a certain amount of disillusionment would be expected to follow national during the previous presidential election. As Obama explained to his campaign staff, “we’re not as cool as we were four years ago”. But why? While the answer seems clear to me, I don’t think Obama quite gets it. So, to start his second term as president, let me humbly make some suggestions. First, let us remember that Obama won a mandate in 2008. He even got a majority in both houses of Congress, albeit with many conservative “Democrats” in the House. Still, there’s no denying that Obama was swept into office on a wave of enthusiasm.

What happened to that wave? Why were people so much more excited four years ago? Novelty only goes so far in explaining this. While it was exciting that he was the first non-white male president this country has ever had, I don’t think it explains much of the decline in his supporters’ enthusiasm. Another reason may be that his speeches have lost their luster. Again, while this is certainly part of the answer, I believe there are bigger reasons, which deserve more credit and attention.

What these explanations tend to ignore is the actual substance of Obama’s convictions, convictions that resonated with and are common to broad swaths of the America, including me. Those beliefs are expressed very nicely in his book, The Audacity of Hope, and perhaps to a lesser extent, in his memoir, Dreams from my Father. He doesn’t merely list where he stands on the issues of the present era. Instead, he provides a broad personal narrative that gives force to his convictions, and compels readers, perhaps not to the point of changing their point of view, but at least to the extent that it is not difficult to see why he believes what he does. Such convictions are not so easily wiped away.

What made these books so popular is that they eloquently put into words what so many of us already believe, although most of us do not possess comparable gifts with which to express those beliefs. I say that those beliefs are widely shared, because they are rooted in common traditions, values, and experiences that transcend all the typical demographic characteristics. They are a big part of what binds us together as one country, despite our differences.

Somewhere along the way, those values got lost in Obama’s elusive search for bipartisan cooperation. Don’t get me wrong: it would be great if the two parties found a way to work together, learn to compromise, and get along in a more collegial manner. Unfortunately, it takes two to tango. This is the key stumbling block that Obama has run into so many times in his first term. He has paid for this not only in terms the amount of change that he was able to effect, but also in terms of his perceived David-like “scrappiness” in facing down Goliath Republicans. With the quickness and regularity with which he caved to the opposition, I couldn’t help but wonder, as I believe many of his supporters did, “What happened to the idealism that we saw during the campaign? Where is the president that I voted for?“.

I found myself asking this question many times during the past four years. At first, I thought that Obama just needed more experience in negotiation. I still had high hopes that he would quickly learn that concessions would not be taken as a sign of good faith, which would serve as a basis for earnest compromise, but rather as a sign of weakness, to be exploited to gain further concessions. As far as I can tell, the latter is the view taken by opponents and supporters alike. Eventually, my hope gave way to dispair as Obama seemed determined to do politics the “amicable” way despite operating in an openly hostile environment. Again, I hope the lesson that it takes two to tango filters through to Obama as soon as possible. I believe this is the point where Obama enthusiasm started its long decline.

Allow me to reiterate this point: Obama won his first election with a mandate. Not only did he capture a large fraction of the votes, Democrats won both houses of Congress. Four years later, that mandate has been erased, squandered. Obama would probably say that this happened mostly because the country is fundamentally right of center. Despite all his talk about hope and optimism, this attitude strikes me as extremely pessimistic. The premise seems to be that people’s beliefs are immovable, to be navigated, rather than maleable, to be pushed in a positive direction. Besides, if America really is slightly that conservative, how did Obama win a mandate with his clearly liberal positions as described in his campaign and books? Allow me to put forth a “bold” explanation: the people voted for Obama, because they wanted what he was selling. You see, they turned away not because he turned out to be brashly liberal, but rather because they lost faith in his willingness as president to advocate for changes that he as presidential candidate had advocated for.

The way I see it, Obama faces three fundamental problems:

  1. politics: How can Obama get more of what he wants?
  2. electoral disillusionment
  3. Washington’s toxic atmosphere

In focusing so much on 3, he has sacrificed 1 and 2. As a result, he did not achieve as much as he should have in any of these areas. Therefore, he should get back to his roots, the beliefs that so many of us share and hoped he will fight for. This might mean raising some GOP hackles,  but guess what? They were already out to get him from the get-go. It is futile to avoid this. Instead, he should marginalize the radical conservative elements. In this, he may be able to count on the support of moderate conservatives.

What I believe he can expect from this change in tac is a more satisfied, more supportive electorate, and more favorable (for liberals) political victories. With any luck, he will gain some respect from his political adversaries, who will realize that their shrill cries make them look weak, petty, and pathetic. There is much time to be made up for, but Obama has a fresh four years to work with. Let’s hope he spends them well.

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