Don't Mistake Discontent for Failure

09/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is, according to the punditocracy, the summer of our discontent, the moment when utopianism slides into profound disillusionment and "change" in D.C. morphs into "business as usual." There's an inevitability to the narrative: newbie hits town, promises change, gets corrupted by power, and the town changes him. And we return, ill-tempered, disturbed, to the status quo ante. There's a certain joy to the tone of the commentary, a "how could you be so naïve, I told-you-so" gloating at the voting public.

From "tea parties" designed to protest perceived tax-and-spend big-government programs to rent-a-ruffian brawls at town hall meetings on health care reform; from liberal angst about President Obama's purported spinelessness on said health care reform (see Paul Krugman's recent article) and the need for a second stimulus package to conservative jeremiads on Obama's purported desire to socialize the medical system, end American capitalism, and hand over the country to terrorists, (see Dick Morris's preposterous-but-popular new book Catastrophe) the tone has gotten uglier.

All bad, right? Wrong.

Corpses don't protest. That we, as a society, once again have the energy to protest and dissent, is actually a hopeful sign that after being knocked for a loop in recent years we're finding our footing anew.

Barack Obama was elected president with the country in freefall: the bottom was literally falling out of the economy; the country's moral credibility was shredded on the international stage; hurricane Katrina, torture photos, the endless manipulation of public opinion by Karl Rove and the more general army of spinmeisters, all of these had created dangerously high levels of cynicism about the political system; overwhelming numbers of Americans polled responded that they believed the country was heading in the wrong direction.

Obama posited himself as, and was elected to perform the role of, antidote to all of this, as a "change agent" who would usher in a new age. There was always something more than a little utopian about both the rhetoric and the expectations. The great danger was that the utopianism would become the whole story -- that President Obama, so manifestly, visually, a break from the past, so much the embodiment of an American velvet revolution, would be seen as a Superhero, a change-man simply beyond reproach. That's what happened to many post-colonial leaders in other countries and in previous decades, and the results were unhealthy both for their personal historical legacies and for their countries. Criticism was seen as disloyalty and the results were all too predicable: liberation heroes became tyrants, government became a purview for yes-men, rhetoric of change masked crumbling, decrepit, corrupt realities.

The deeper America's economic and political crisis, the greater the likelihood that all hopes would come to be vested in an individual, that the quest for salvation would come to assume profoundly personal hues, and that those same crises of governance would, or at least might, unfold when that individual was proven lacking in the wave-a-magic-wand-and-make-all-our-troubles-disappear department.

That Obama's post-election popularity ratings were in the 70-plus percent range was partly because he did, indeed, offer something profoundly new, but they were also partly a product of desperation: almost everyone felt he had to succeed, that his failure would mean the country's failure, even collapse.

Since Obama's inauguration, in January, the great ship of state has, slowly but surely, changed course. The economy is by no means "normal" again; but most experts believe the bone-jarring freefall has been stopped; the country's moral reputation is healing; the department of justice is again run by people who respect the rule of law; on climate change, for the first time adults seem to be setting the agenda; and on health care, the discussion is now about how to fix a broken system -- which is a world away from the dithering, do-nothing language of the Bush years.

And so, now, paradoxically, as the country's situation normalizes, as many different areas of communal life improve, so the voices of discontent will grow louder. Obama will be judged as a mere mortal, as a politician warts-and-all, rather than as an unreproachable creature-of-salvation. And again, that's a good thing. As Obama knows all too well, starry-eyed idealism alone almost never gets the job done. Combining idealism with hard-nosed real-politic, getting down to brass tacks to enact change, might be messier, might alienate opponents, might even more deeply alienate friends, but it's a combination that tends to get results.

Let's take health care: universal coverage has been a holy grail for every Democratic president since Roosevelt. And yet, in 2009, nearly 50 million Americans have no health insurance. If Obama fails to achieve reform, yes, he'll have wasted a golden opportunity and will join the list of presidents to have been humbled by this key issue. And then the harsh words already leveled by critics on his left flank will have some merit. But if, six months from now, a new system is on the books, even if its birth is messy, ugly, my guess is that fairly quickly the trials and tribulations of the summer of 2009 will come to seem insignificant.

At the very least, I'd argue, only seven months into the new administration it's too early in the process to write off either Obama's idealistic side or the prospects for real health care reform because of a few weeks of missteps and a slower, less comprehensive, move toward change than progressives would like to see.

As I detail in my upcoming book Inside Obama's Brain, Obama and his team generally think long-term; they analyze opinion poll data, but they don't obsess over daily fluctuations in the same way that most recent presidents have done. During the election campaign, Obama frequently told his advisers to think beyond the daily polls, to develop policies that would recreate the country over a period of decades rather than simply provide short-term bang for the buck. It's the difference between a driver who obsesses on the second-by-second fluctuations in the fuel-efficiency gauge and the driver who looks at the long-term fuel averages over the course of thousands of miles of driving.

If, and I recognize it's a big if, meaningful health care reform emerges from all the messiness, anger, discontent and fear that are the flavors du jour these dog days of summer, that strategy will be vindicated.

Yes, Obama's popularity has declined from the heights it reached in January. But, again, that's not necessarily a bad thing. In politics, the ultimate measure of success isn't simply popularity; it's effectiveness. And when all the huffing and puffing is out of the way, when we take stock at the end of the year and look at how much has changed in a mere few hundred days, we will, I believe, see an effective presidency unfolding and a revitalized social compact being crafted.