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President Obama May Have to Choose: Transformation or Partisanship

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Thus far, Barack Obama has straddled twin missions -- preaching "a more perfect union" and pushing his party agenda. But, eventually, he may have to choose between transformational leadership and party politics.

The president's first inaugural address laid out the vision of fundamentally transforming America; and his second inauguration revealed an agenda of fairness and justice. That dichotomy between rhetorical philosopher and partisan politician puzzled many observers; but the difference between Obama 2009 and Obama 2013 may be more apparent than real.

As I asserted in an earlier post in this series, national power players would be wise to keep in mind that he was back then and still hopes to be a transformational leader -- and he is a formidable partisan politician.

The Legacy Issue

What is certain is that President Obama is on the spot here at the beginning of his legacy term in the White House. Already, he is being praised, ordered, attacked on that score, on every conceivable issue, such as the economy, civil rights, climate change, killer drones, even the Keystone oil pipeline.

For example, one week after his reelection, the New York Times editorialists hung his legacy on their priorities of foreign policy and national defense:

Mr. Obama put major new or controversial initiatives on hold this year while the campaign was under way. Now he has two years before another election season impedes his ability to get things done. He needs to decide on his priorities and act while he has the political space and capital to do so.

Now, less than two months into his second term, some are already pronouncing Obama a failed president.

For example, Jim Backlin of the Christian Coalition of America has rendered final rites to his legacy:

Ironically, instead of trying to build a lasting legacy by accomplishing tax reform and entitlement reforms, Obama has chosen, for political purposes, to continue the gridlock which has gripped Washington D.C. during the past few years. And because Obama has chosen to continue his endless campaign for the next two years, he has ensured his legacy failure.

Politics Now, Transformation Later?

Right now, Obama seems focused intently on his assignment as leader of the Democratic Party; his efforts appear disciplined and calculated to marginalize the GOP so that he will have a free hand on behalf of his new majority coalition. But his transformational speeches still reverberate with many Americans who are uneasy about the course of our nation and whose faith in him has endured despite concerns about his effectiveness in improving their daily lives.

Perhaps he has this all figured out. Maybe his personal master plan involves partisan domination now and fundamental transformation later. He navigated Washington, at least in his first term, as a man for all seasons, speaking at times as a philosopher and at other times as a party operative. Furthermore, his landmark political achievements (winning election as the first African American president and passing the Affordable Health Act) accommodated both philosophical and partisan visions.

So, the president has to be excited about the legacy possibilities if he can secure Democratic control of the House and Senate in next year's mid-term election.

Important Consequences for Obama and America

However, Democratic partisanship and democratic transformation are two different callings, once you get beyond symbolic and superficial trappings, and the clock is ticking fast as Mr. Obama tries to chart his mark in the history books.

If he tries to merge both callings, he risks a mixed, limited legacy, and maybe even failure on both counts. He thereby might end up like many other politicians, dressing up their muddling actions with the language and conceit of noble cause. And, in that case, the historical consequence will be further drifting toward an uninspired, uninspiring destiny for the Great Experiment of American democracy.

Perhaps it will be useful to revisit a couple of knowledgeable experts who contributed worthwhile comments previously in this series. First, David Maraniss (an Obama biographer), suggests that the president's mixed record thus far foreshadows greatness in this second term:

Obama's re-election solidifies his past and opens his future...But in the end, it always comes back to the nature of the man at the top. If he ran in some respects a disappointingly small campaign, it was in the service of something larger.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy, of Stanford University, also offers an interesting backhand comment about both Obama and our Great Experiment:

If even as committed a change agent as Obama is doomed to four more years of nothing more than Lilliputian, small-beer tinkering; if the self-described greatest power in the world is so powerless to put its house in order, isn't it time for a thorough overhaul of our manifestly antiquated political machinery?

The prospect of a transformational leader and a struggling democratic experiment is simultaneously fascinating and worthy of close attention.

(For previous posts in this series, click here.)

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.