I was awoken to the sounds of a celebrating crowd one year ago just after midnight at the end of Election Day. The President's House at Wesleyan University sits in the middle of campus, and we suddenly could hear cheering and music coming from the Student Center a hundred yards from where we live. I got dressed and went outside to find young people dancing, singing and waving American flags. It was official, Barack Obama had won, and the students were buoyed by a surge of hope. A more conservative young man approached me and explained that although he didn't vote for the Democratic candidate, he knew that "this was a great night for America." "Patriotism," he explained, "isn't just something you feel when you get what you want."
One year later, it's this thought that echoes with me the most.
This is no longer the time for dancing. The euphoria of last November has turned to disappointment for many of the young men and women who celebrated so raucously on campus. The candidate of change and reform has not been the president who could reinvent Washington politics. The idealist who many saw on the campaign trail turns out to be a realist trying to govern without losing the support of the middle of the political spectrum. The dancing and flag waving has been replaced with calls for deliberation and patience. The Left feels betrayed because the pace of change has been frustratingly slow, particularly in regard to unemployment, the war and governmental transparency. The Right feels threatened because the momentum for change will challenge some of their core commitments, particularly in regard to government interference in the private sector and national security. But patriotism is not just something you feel when you get what you want.
This is no longer the time for dancing, but it is the time to work for progressive change. The Obama administration did pull the economy back from a precipice of collective ruin that would have dwarfed anything we'd seen for generations. Shoring up the financial system and saving the automobile industry may already seem like old news, but these successes are key elements in a sustainable recovery. We must continue to work for job creation and extensions of unemployment insurance, and we must insist that a healthy banking system is not only for the rich.
This is no longer a time for dancing, but it is a time to work for peace. The president has been criticized for taking too much time in making his decision about Afghanistan. The United States has a corrupt partner, but it also has real enemies and genuine security interests in this region. How do we create the grounds for a lasting peace as opposed to simply planning for either endless militarization or a withdrawal that only delays more deadly attacks? The decision to send more young men and women into harm's way only makes sense if it contributes to our long range goals for security and peace. This judgment can't be based on what we wish to be true about the conflict but on our capacity to create the grounds for stability in one of the most challenging areas of the world. Information gathering and deliberation, rather than ideological purity or witless determination, is what we need (and are getting) from the Commander-in-Chief.
This is no longer a time for dancing, but it is a time to work for social justice. The president has been reluctant to deal with past abuses of power, even violations of the law, in the name of "moving on" and getting things done. Most surprisingly, he has maintained his predecessor's pursuit of secrecy and efforts at concentrating power in the executive branch. We must remind President Obama that Candidate Obama was right about the virtues of transparency, and that the idealistic Senator from Illinois was right to critique the Cheney mania for enhanced presidential powers. The pursuit of justice can only be energized by more freedom of information and less deal making behind closed doors.
This is no longer the time for dancing, but neither is it the time to abandon a president who still represents the best opportunity for progressive change in decades. Candidate Obama proved that he was a man of integrity, but also a man of focus, compromise and deep, pragmatic intelligence. President Obama has shown us many of these same qualities. Pragmatic compromise will mean that not all of us who supported the candidate will get what we had hoped for. But patriotism, like solidarity, isn't just something you feel when you get what you want.