03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Defense of Good Government

A couple days ago, I wrote a piece for the Guardian newspaper, in which I posited the notion that President Obama's singular achievement in his first year in office has been to wrestle the great ship of state onto a new rhetorical course - one in which government again sets a civil, rational tone, and in which the voices of ordinary people at least have a fighting chance of being heard in Washington, D.C.

Many of my readers responded by mocking the idea that this was of any real significance. The underlying tone of these replies was something to the effect of "well, we're going to hell in a hand basket and there ain't a whole lot any administration can do about it." Or, more cynically, that all power is so corrupting that even those who start out talking the talk are always unable to really walk the walk. Throw the bums out, whoever they might be.

The question is, has Obama truly become one of the bums? Was the 2008 election - seen in the immediate afterglow as being so transformative of our culture - really transformative only of Obama himself, alchemically rendering him government-incarnate, thus definitionally making him part of the problem?

From Obama's left flank and from the conservative right, the answer given to these questions is, increasingly, "yes." There is, in this as in so many other analyses these days, a coming together of extremes. In the mid-nineteenth century, Marx posited the notion that communism would emerge when the state "withered away." More recently, Grover Norquist-styled libertarians have argued for shrinking the state down to a size at which it can be "strangled in a bathtub." The common ground here is that in both analyses the state is, inherently, something bad, something that all right-minded thinkers ought to want to see vanish.

I beg to differ: in the modern world, governments are, indeed, constrained by a myriad of forces largely outside of their exclusive control - from globally interconnected economies to vast environmental challenges. But, as world events become more complex, so, too, does the role of government become more important rather than more irrelevant. It is governments that regulate our environment and our workplaces; governments that provide, or fail to provide, security, educational opportunities, and transport systems; governments that set monetary policy; governments that either invest or fail to invest in vast scientific projects. To deny these governmental functions, as many of the Tea Party anti-taxers do, is to live a delusion.

And so, since we can't do without government, we should at the very least demand that our government performs to par.

Done badly, government is, indeed, a deeply harmful phenomenon: malevolent governments in control of modern propaganda tools and information distribution-and-gathering technologies can manipulate populaces to rampage against those belonging to other ethnic or religious groups; incompetent governments can divert vast resources into incoherent, socially useless pet projects; they can put in place policies that make bad environmental problems worse and chaotic economic situations cataclysmic.

That's what we saw throughout the second Bush presidency, from the appalling response to Hurricane Katrina through to the panicky spasms of action-inaction-action around the unfolding economic collapse of 2008.

From a distance, it's almost hard to recall the extent of the chaos that descended last fall; the virtual runs on banks and money market accounts, the cascading failures of the big investment houses, the bizarre price spikes and collapses within commodities markets as it became harder and harder to place a value on tradeable items, the stock market's nose dive.

It's hard, too, to recall the surreal nature of politics thirteen or fourteen months ago: a President so universally loathed that he knew any economic rescue package he proposed was doomed if he played too prominent a role in promoting it; a vice-presidential candidate for the Republican Party, winking her way to the mythical "Joe Sixpack's" heart, who positively luxuriated in her ignorance of national and international events; the gimmick of John McCain suspending his presidential campaign to deal with an economic crisis of a magnitude he so clearly didn't understand: "the fundamentals" are fine he told a crowd as the entire edifice began to sway and the support pillars crumble.

From a distance, too, it's hard to recall the extraordinary, almost utopian, sense of hope that Barack Obama managed to instill in the electorate during those days of collapse, drawing tens and then hundreds of thousands of people to his campaign events. He conveyed not just charisma but competence; he was young, but it wasn't just his youthful zest that wowed voters -- it was also the fact that he was profoundly intelligent, that he seemed so in control of the issues. That was always, to my mind, one of the most fascinating findings when viewers were polled for their reactions after the televised debates between McCain and Obama: the younger man came across as being more aware of the big-picture, more able to synthesize ideas, more able to reassure scared voters that he had a handle on their problems.

Which brings me back to that ship of state.

Political leaders don't just advocate specific policies; they also set a tone, they help to shape a culture. When leaders talk down to citizens, when they propose political gimmicks in place of well-thought-out policies, when they value soundbites above expertise, they risk dumbing down the broader culture. When, by contrast, leaders talk to populaces with respect, when they genuinely listen to peoples' problems, they help to elevate the general discourse.

In my upcoming book, Inside Obama's Brain, I quote many of the community organizers Obama worked with in the 1980s. To a person, they talked of the profound listening abilities that Obama came to Chicago with as a young man, and of how those already-strong abilities were honed during the years in which he worked in impoverished neighborhoods of the Southside.

Obama brought those listening skills to his presidential campaign, and, it seems to me, in the year since he was elected, he has used those skills to gradually recalibrate the workings of government in D.C. Has he been entirely successful in this endeavor? No. Do lobbyists and big-business interests still have more influence than I'd like? Yes. But do I think government today is run more competently, more professionally, and, at the same time, with more humility than was the case during the Bush years? Absolutely.

Looking back at the 2008 election, it's hard to remember just how vast a break with the past Obama's victory was seen to be. We take his leadership for granted now - and that's as it should be. After all, no president should be able to rest on his laurels or take the fact of his election as the acme of his success. We measure Obama's successes and failures not against the spectacular incompetence of the man who preceded him but against his own aspirations, his own promises to bring change. And, again, that's as it should be.

Tuesday's election results, in which the Republicans gained the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia, send a clear message that for many voters the Obama administration has lost some of its gloss. If Obama wants these voters to return to his fold come 2012, he'll have to work harder to make real the new social compact that he sketched out on his way to the White House.

But, today, one year after that historic presidential election, let's at least acknowledge the scope of the project unleashed that day - the attempt, during a time of extraordinary economic dislocation, to once more make governance something respectable, something honorable; the attempt to create a political discourse that brings people in rather than marginalizes and ignores them.