President Obama gave a brilliant, potentially career saving, speech on Thursday night that unveiled a $450 billion dollar stimulus package designed as a last-ditch effort to boost America's faltering economy and his increasingly dismal re-election hopes. It was a remarkable display of passion, tough talk, and a fighting spirit and combative tone that, to the chagrin of increasing numbers of liberals, has been largely missing from Obama's White House. A president elected on the combined strength of dazzling oratory and improbable personal biography has proved more deft at saving his political career in times of great crisis, such as the now iconic "race speech" from March 2008, rather than crafting a bold vision of American democracy in the 21st century.
Part of Obama's current political troubles reflects a larger crisis in American democracy. Some of the president's most vocal critics on the left, such as Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, have excoriated the White House for ignoring the poor and turning a blind eye to the increasing misery facing the black community, whose unemployment rate has reached depression era levels in many areas. Environmentalists point to Obama's capitulation to corporate lobbyists and oil companies as an unexpected betrayal while unions are still waiting for the president to offer more than symbolic signs of robust support. Obama defenders, including MSNBC host Reverend Al Sharpton and public intellectual Melissa Harris-Perry, highlight the unprecedented levels of assault waged against the nation's first black president while urging the White House to adopt a more robust posture of social and economic justice advocacy.
African-Americans, despite the administration's relative silence on issues of mass incarceration and the ongoing crisis of institutional racism, have remained Obama's staunchest supporters. This counterintuitive posture owes as much to feeling of racial pride and solidarity as to a sophisticated understanding of the racial animus behind the Tea Party phenomenon, right-wing activists and powerbrokers such as the Koch brothers, and Republican politicians who have allowed a major American political party to be hijacked by a small group of extremists unconcerned about the responsibility of governing.
How did it come to this? Fourteen months before the 2012 presidential election, Obama's approval rating hovers at 43 percent, Republicans are emboldened by their debt-ceiling victory, and millions who were inspired to join our democratic process in 2008 stand disappointed and disillusioned. Eulogies for the Obama presidency are already being discussed in major newspapers, political blogs, and cable news shows. The standard allegations suggest that Obama lacks the three B's: Boldness, Brains, and Balls. Liberals have pointed to the president's timidity after the election and reluctance to confront right-wing politicians while Fox News conservatives have questioned the Harvard Law School graduate's intellectual credentials as part of bizarre strategy to bolster the political chances of Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Obama's proposed American Jobs Acts may be too little to late, but at least hints at the bold, New Deal inspired programs that many of his supporters expected in the wake of his watershed presidential election. But the very pragmatism that helped Obama win the presidency has helped to undermine his administration, both in terms of public policy and political optics. Obama's efforts to become a Democratic counterpart to Ronald Reagan have faltered due to the end of the style of legislative bi-partisanship and political comity that allowed the "Gipper" to become a transformative president during the 1980s. Bill Clinton massaged the dawn of the new Gingrich-led Republican partisanship in the 1990s by embracing welfare reform and benefiting from the unexpected dotcom bubble that created millions of new jobs. Part of the president's current predicament stems from Tea Party politics that insist on political purity at the expense of governing compromise. At least some of this is the result of unspoken discomfort surrounding the president's racial identity.
Obama's own political timidity, almost religious belief in the intelligence and political sophistication of elite experts, and cautious governing philosophy has helped undermine an administration that has struggled to articulate a coherent vision for the nation's future. Obama concluded the toughest and most combative political speech he has given as president by channeling a spirit of American optimism that helped get him elected. After acknowledging the difficult years that the country has recently faced, he looked toward the future, noting that Americans were "tougher than the times we live in" and "bigger than our politics have been," only lacking in the inspiration to meet our current historical reckoning. If last night's speech was a start, we have a long collective journey ahead of us.