On his own terms, President Obama is a failure.
During the presidential campaign, he fought hammer and tongs with Hillary Rodham Clinton on the best way to govern. Clinton, casting herself as a battle-scarred political veteran, argued that diligence, dedicated detail work and working the system were essential for success.
Obama, donning the mantle of a redeemer descending from divine heights, argued that his soaring rhetoric was more than “just words” but a way out of the poisonous, partisan gridlock of yesteryear. Early on in New Hampshire, he proclaimed that his “rival in this race is not other candidates. It’s cynicism.”
Occasionally the Obama-Clinton argument was explicit -- such as when they sparred over who was more important to the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King Jr. or Lyndon Johnson -- but it was always there, implicit in everything from their body language and stagecraft to position papers and platforms.
The great irony of it all is that it seems they were both wrong.
Obama’s rhetoric in fact looks to be the best way to achieve a Clintonian agenda. But a Clintonian agenda is the worst possible way to live up to Obama’s rhetoric.
From his 2004 keynote speech onward, Obama rejected the partisan divide. He earned points by insisting that invidious descriptions of political opponents were deleterious to civic health and distracted us from the fact that “we are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
In a June primary victory speech, Obama said he was “absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children . . . this was the moment -- this was the time -- when we came together to remake this great nation.”
So, does anyone feel like Americans are coming together?
Obama the outsider hasn’t changed the way Washington works; he’s worked Washington in a way that only an outsider with no respect for the place would dare.
Consider his signature domestic priority: healthcare reform. After a year of working on it, his progressive base is either profoundly disappointed with him or seethingly angry. His Republican and conservative opponents are not only furious, they are emboldened. And independents -- who’ve been deserting the Democrats in polls and off-year elections -- are simply disgusted with the whole spectacle. Most important, an administration that once preened over its people-power roots, can’t even claim that Americans like what he’s doing.
The bill does have its supporters: inside-the-Beltway pundits and Capitol Hill deal-makers, the pharmaceutical industry and the supposedly rapacious insurance companies (don’t take my word for it, just ask Howard Dean -- or your stockbroker).
Under the Clintonian paradigm of governance, Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson’s parlaying of his pro-life objections to the Senate bill into a windfall for his state and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ leveraging of his socialist principles for billions in special deals would be dramatic twists in a conventional story of LBJ-style arm-twisting.
But Clintonian means cannot further Obamaian ends. For the last year Obama’s party has made a mockery of everything Obama was supposed to represent. The tone has gotten worse as his communications staff spent the year demonizing Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Fox News. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called opponents of their health proposals “un-American.” Just over the weekend, Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse insisted that Senate opposition is being driven, in part, by “Aryan support groups.”
Everywhere you look, the sizzle doesn’t match the steak. He won the Nobel Peace Prize as he (rightly) sent even more men off to war. He promised the oceans would stop rising but delivered a nonbinding something-or-other in Copenhagen.
In his special healthcare address to Congress in September, he said, “I am not the first president to take up [the cause of healthcare reform], but I am determined to be the last.” Those were just words, and everyone, including Obama, knew it. Indeed, the only grounds for supporting the bill, according to progressives, is that it is a “first step” or a “starter house” that they’ll build on for years, even generations, to come. In other words, the healthcare debate is not only not going to end, it’s going to get uglier for as far as the eye can see.
But here’s the point: Obama’s rhetorical audacity breeds cynicism, because utopianism always comes up short. Obama has many victories ahead of him, but his cause is already lost.