What: you didn't expect change to be instant, did you?
You didn't expect Rome to be reconstructed from vast and prolonged ruin---political, economic, financial, social, ethical-moral ruin---and restored to running like a top in just one, 365-day year? Did you?
It seems many on the left did---too many. Judging from the lamentations, ranging from cries of disappointment to anguished claims of betrayal, the perception is building that the Democratic base is bailing out on Barack Obama. Moreover, the perception grows that the base is bailing, not quietly, but in anger: "I worked like a crazy for the Obama campaign and then he sells out by [fill in the blank: selling out to Wall Street, caving on the public option on healhcare, extending in Afghanistan]. This is not change I can believe in. I'll never, never, never work for the guy again---in fact I won't even vote for him again!"
And that's the "love" on the left. On the right, despite Mr. Obama's many attempts at bipartisan cooperation, the Republicans have united in total obstructionism and, taken over by their extremists, created a wall of very noisy anger.
And now, yesterday's Republican upset in Massachusetts for U.S. Senator (Scott Brown), who won vowing to "kill" Mr. Obama's healthcare plan, stop out-of-control spending, and score one for "the people."
Likewise the media is post-honeymoon and into judgment, with sting. "Wimps or Warriors" is the title of a recent analysis piece in The New York Times about Obama's performance as commander-in-chief. Driven by the meme of the moment---recall all the chin-pulling about Obama's first 100 days?---the media these many memes later now are compelled to render a final grade. The cover of this month's Foreign Policy shows Obama and Jimmy Carter with an equals sign (=) in the middle. Remembering that it's a scholarly journal, it fudges its verdict with the caption, "Well, maybe."
But: It's way too early for verdicts, especially final verdicts. After all, today we are celebrating---or should be---the first anniversary of Mr. Obama's Inauguration. Inauguration = beginning, starting, commencing. Remember the euphoria on the Mall that wintry day one year ago? Despairing for America's ruination inflicted by Bush-Cheney, we yearned for the "transformative" change Mr. Obama spoke of. Yes, there's been a falling-off of that euphoria since then, but how could great expectations not dim upon meeting reality?
Which reality just got far more complicated with the Massachusetts game-changer.
Deep breath, Democrats: Instead of sputtering in anger, going limp, or quitting the field, we need to get back to our posts, lower the temperature, take the long view, applaud Mr.Obama's achievements to date, and push back---hard---at the Republicans.
Equally important, we need to hang in there and, as ally and/or goad, push Mr.Obama. Course-correction is now required, and the left can be helpful to Mr. Obama---or not.
Because of all the anger, Mr. Obama's real achievements to date have been obscured. His push for massive healthcare reform, if it passes---now a very big if---would be truly historic social legislation. He has reset America's relationship with the world, notably the Muslim world, restoring diplomacy to pride of place. Immediately upon entering office he declared America no longer tortures and will abide by the Geneva Conventions, returning us to rule of law and restoring our moral authority. He is winding down the war in Iraq and---to the ire of the left---extending the one in Afghanistan, but campaigning he did vow to refocus on this "necessary" war and in his West Point speech he stressed an exit in the near-term; let's keep him to it. Educators are enthusiastic about his "Race to the Top" plan, and the auto industry, following a "government takeover" led by Mr. Obama, reportedly is impressed with government's redesign.
And he's done all of this in a collapsing economy!
Which points to his enormous achievement---a near-miracle, really: Thanks to Mr. Obama's policies, the economy has slowed its juggernaut to the cellar and does not today have us in the apocalyptic bends it did a year ago. Remember those nauseating bends? That was an economy about which its former chief custodian, George W. Bush, said upon learning the credit markets were about to crash---weeks before the '08 election---"This sucker could go down." And it did---just as the Republicans left office and Obama came in.
Unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt who took office at the bottom of the Great Depression, Obama came in at the beginning and, like a bronco rider, will have to ride it out. To slow the descent, he's thrown hundreds of billions of dollars into stimulus and bailouts programs---action which again is working: the descent has slowed---meanwhile Republicans howl about "exorbitant spending" and out-of-control deficits. Talk about double bind: Mr. Obama is trying to repair the ruin caused by the Republican wrecking crew. Forget "transformative change," we're still in damage control. Making it a triple bind, Republicans are quick to remind Democrats they "own" government now and insist on no "blame game"---and Democrats oblige, in the mistaken notion that taking ownership of the ship of state means not mentioning to the seller that the hull is cracked. No more! Republicans talk responsibility and Democrats need to make them take it.
In this gargantuan repair project, though, Mr. Obama has disappointed, even angered his base. In re the economy, he seems to have kowtowed to Wall Street---and gotten rolled for it, with the institutions that were earlier "too big to fail" now bigger than ever, along with their executive bonuses, with no ethical reckoning of responsibility and, so far, no regulation to rein in the insane risking-taking that could take us all down all over again. In the healthcare debate, which absent his guidance has gone on too long, he over-learned the Clintons' lesson and, rather than draft a plan and submit it to the Hill, he left the entire task to Congress---with a result that, while Main Street would benefit, Big Insurance would benefit more, to judge by their skyrocketing stock. No wonder the Democrats on Main Street are not happy: They wonder what happened to the former community activist.
And throughout, Mr. Obama has sought hard for bipartisan consensus, and what did he get for it? Massachusetts. Though let's remember bipartisan unity was why we fell in love with him in the first place, when he brought the 2004 Democratic convention to its feet by painting the dream we all yearn for: that we are not blue-state, or red-state, but the United States of America. That dream of unity, though, may have to wait.
For now, Mr. Obama has a choice. Speaking this morning about the Massachusetts upset, he acknowledged people are "angry." He also has an angry base. What will he do about it? Much---everything---depends on his reaction.
Intterestingly, and encouragingly, Mr. Obama lately has displayed a more populist voice.
Speaking of the bank bailouts, he stated recently, with more heat and less cool than we've seen this year, "We want our money back." He now speaks of imposing a "responsibility tax" on the Wall Street institutions that caused the collapse, a step that actually offers a spot of bipartisan consensus (if my Republican mother's thumbs-up indicates anything). Squaring off against Wall Street may mean replacing his counselors who hail from there, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and top economic advisor Larry Summers---figures Main Street doesn't much trust. (Tapping Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel and Main Street's forceful advocate, would be welcome.)
Were he to become the people's tribune like FDR, savior of the Great Depression; were he to fight hard for financial reform, fending off Wall Street's lobbyists; and were he to focus like a laser on jobs, jobs, jobs, and pivot us toward a new economy, be it green or whatever, Mr. Obama would have much of his party embracing him again.
I believe the tribune is in him. I identify with his moral temper, that of a tragic optimist, and believe it best suits the dark complexity of our times. And I believe in his inner steel; I think of his wife Michelle's remark on the campaign trail, when asked if he were a fighter: "People, he's from Chicago." I trust we'll see some Chicago audacity in his State of the Union speech next week.... (See also Simon Schama.)
Likewise Democrats, particularly the left, have a choice: how to handle their anger. Do they help, hinder, or bail on Obama?
Some thoughts: "Transformational" change, the grail that Mr. Obama spoke of on the campaign trail and that had us swooning, may have suggested magical change, instant restoration to our pre-ruin state. But in our hard-headed selves, we know there's no mgic, just hard work. Best to get over our year of magical thinking. We know also that, historically speaking, change doesn't occur in one year but happens over time. Just ask your foreign friends. In Drama, things get interesting after the first crisis, when choices must be made. Getting organizational, change often takes a movement, such as Arianna Huffington and The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson urge.
And if those are not prompts enough, remember the ruination: the eight-year eon when Bush-Cheney systematically and, yes, criminally trashed America---taking us on a wind-in-the-hair ride from big surplus to big deficit while yammering about "fiscal responsibility"; waging unnecessary war in Iraq while invoking God and playing fiscal games with the war's funding; giving more-more-more to the rich and stiffing everybody else while talking "compassionate conservatism"; abrogating the rule of law and making a joke of the Department of Justice---
I'm getting steamed all over again and hope you are too. Reload!