Perhaps more so than any leader in our past, President Barack Obama claims the mission of transforming America.
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all played leading roles at critical junctures of our national history; but, arguably, no one has so publically invoked and articulated such personal ambition.
At one point, in his first presidential campaign, Obama tried to energize his supporters by saying that, "I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment ... when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."
A Transformational Mission
No promise was made more often and more forcefully than Obama's comment about "fundamentally transforming the United States of America."
Consider his 2009 inaugural speech, wherein he referenced his mission as the challenge of unusual crisis, with words and phrases like "gathering clouds and raging storms," a sapping of confidence across our land," and "a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable." Starting that day, he said, "We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." Then he pledged ambitious, divinely-inspired, big-plan transformation:
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply ... This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
And consider the personalized/transformative connotation of his inaugural remarks a few days ago, on January 21, 2013, when he said:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution ... we affirm the promise of our democracy ... But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges ... It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began.
Barack Obama certainly commands unusual mystique; and he seems to sense a personal responsibility for our unfolding history.
And the Pursuit of Lasting Greatness
David Maraniss, author of what is considered an essential version of Obama's biography, has confirmed the president's comprehension of his role in American history (Barack Obama: The Story). According to Maraniss, the president sometimes assembled evening round tables of historians at the White House; and the host himself led discussions about what it would take for him to reach "lasting greatness" beyond being the first African-American president.
In an opinion piece for the Washington Post a couple days after the president's re-election, Maraniss wrote ("Obama's Pursuit of Greatness"):
History shows that a second term is required to create, or to ratify presidential greatness -- and in that sense, Obama is not ambivalent about his ambitions. Since he first thought about being president, a notion that came to him relatively late compared with most politicians, he has wanted to be a great one. When he stepped onto the stage Tuesday night, he realized that he has that chance.
Maraniss then ventured to speculate about the president's prospects. "I do have a sense that he will keep working his way through problems, rationally, one after another, until his accomplishments leave a lasting mark in history."
But the Real Test Is Yet to Come
Barack Obama's personal ambition is now one of our self-evident truths. But his quest for greatness is a tricky course whose outcome will be determined during his second term in the White House; and the "legacy thing may be harder than Barack Obama imagines," according to Robert Samuelson ("Obama's Quest for Greatness"):
Beginning his second term, Obama has a focused, though unstated, agenda: to achieve presidential greatness in the eyes of historians and Americans. In this, he will almost certainly fail. He is already a historic president as the first African-American to be elected, but there is a chasm between being historic and being great.
Our president's legacy, Samuelson says, will depend upon how his fateful decisions play in the real world of today and tomorrow, such as his handling of the economy, Iran's nuclear program, the federal budget, "and, perhaps, something now unimagined."
In my opinion, whether or not Barack Obama realizes his transformational mission and becomes a great president depends not only on obvious challenges of everyday politics but how he deals with the uncertain future of American democracy.
Author's Note: This post is part of a series of discussions about "Election 2012, Barack Obama, and the Future of American democracy." This series includes edited, updated material from my book, The Future of American Democracy: A Former Congressman's Unconventional Analysis (2002). I'm grateful to University Press of America for allowing me to borrow from that publication for my discussions on Huffington Post.