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What Happened to the Hope: Obama and the Myth of the Presidency

News & Features | January 31, 2012

It has become almost canonical these days to call Barack Obama a disappointment. Only three years into his presidency, the liberal and centrist arguments against Obama already seem old and repetitive: he doesn’t have the strength to stand up to Republicans, he’s just more of the same, he has compromised too much, he simply hasn’t done anything. Is this true? Does this really mean failure? Are liberals justified in their disappointment in a man who inspired almost religious fervor only three years ago?

Factually speaking, the Obama years have been incredibly productive. The president’s accomplishments are startling in comparison to the many that came before him. As soon as he entered office, the Recovery Act of 2009 boasted an economic stimulus of $787 billion. Many have argued that the stimulus was not big enough, but consider the fact that no sum of money even remotely close to this had been passed as economic stimulus in United States history. (As recently as 1993, Bill Clinton struggled to pass a stimulus of $19.5 billion through Congress.) Even more radical than the size of the stimulus were the areas in which the money was invested—clean energy, infrastructure, scientific research, high-tech standards, and more.

The Obama years have continued in this vein of policy successes for the most part. Near-universal healthcare, a pipe dream of presidents from Nixon to Clinton, has become reality. Investment in education has seen vigorous growth through the Race to the Top program. Aid for college students has seen its greatest expansion in 40 years through increased Pell Grants and the easing of loan repayments. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the end of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” represent significant victories for civil liberties. Policies less significant in magnitude and greater in symbolism are numerous: ending the law that prevented aid to organizations based on their abortion services, increasing fuel economy standards, and reopening federal funding for stem cell research are just a few examples of these symbolic policy changes.

It is easy to forget many of the accomplishments of the first two Obama years in the face of today’s crippling 112th Congress. Showdowns on the budget and the debt ceiling brought federal government into farcical gridlock. The filibuster, an arcane Senate rule that prevents a bill from passage without 60 votes, has become the Republican Party’s perpetual threat. Very little seems to get done amidst endless volleys of petty criticism and hundreds of bills that go nowhere. It’s no wonder that Americans have lost their faith in government; Obama’s approval rating sits in the low 40s, while that of Congress has stooped to a disgraceful 9%.

But should the electorate really be surprised by this turn of events? Two years after electing Obama, the American electorate made the most radically right-wing version of the GOP in American history a solid Congressional majority. “Bipartisanship” may be worshipped blindly by the media, but consider the dual mandate that the elections of 2008 and 2010 send into government; more than just sending a mixed message, the election of the GOP provided a symbolic and practical obstruction to his mandate.

It is important to note that this is not a unique phenomenon. Midterm elections often feature low turnout and congressional success for the party out of presidential power. But today’s gridlock is characterized by more than just an ideological divide. The political attitudes of the two sides in power have become radically different. The Republican Party has adopted a dogmatic fervor in opposing all of President Obama’s proposals. Time and time again, we are told that taxes are inherently evil, and government is always the problem. Governance has no place in this kind of political philosophy that offers no room for real-world policymaking.

In the face of the renewed Republican zealotry, Obama has consistently remained the most reasonable man in the upper echelons of Washington. Despite the hostage-taking tactics of the GOP, he has maintained a pragmatic and civil approach to his office. He has valued governance and policy over grand political gestures in the media. Long gone are the days of Bush’s dramatic overtures. Obama is cool, calm, and measured in a way that American politics could not have imagined five years ago.

Yes, Obama has made compromises—he is always bound to do so by the nature of his office. In the constant political commentary of the 24-hour news cycle, the realities of the government are often ignored. Listening solely to rhetoric and punditry, one would think that the election of a president constitutes the creation of a four-year-long dictatorship. The separation of powers in government makes decision-making inherently slow. Without compromise, there can be no governance. And yet the president continually takes the blame for having compromised, for not keeping each and every one of his campaign promises.

This endemic failure to understand the presidency goes beyond institutional issues alone. When thousands pour out onto the street to decry healthcare as “death panels,” is it really surprising that the administration had to compromise on elements of health reform? The tone of political conversation is set not only by those in government but also by those in the media and publicly active groups. Considering these groups spent two years pushing for a right-wing agenda in the front pages, it is no surprise that compromise became habitual.

These misunderstandings embody a problem that plagues American politics—the myth of the presidency. It is convenient to view all of the inner workings of government as machinations of the president’s office. It is convenient to have one central actor for the narrative to follow. But this is simply not true. The president is but one of many jostling in the field of political discourse; he is certainly the most important individual, but the executive is by no means the most powerful branch of government.

The biggest failure of modern American democracy is the lack of public understanding or participation in government. How many people care to know what the Federal Reserve does? How many know what the deficit supercommittee is? (For the record, 49.5% of Americans said they were “not at all familiar” with it.) It is partially the media’s fault, but the media ultimately reports based on its audience’s demand. Public involvement is a cornerstone of successful democracy. Blinded by misunderstanding, however, public pressure revolves primarily around the presidency; all hopes and dreams are pinned onto that one office, and all pressure is applied to that one point. The presidency becomes a popularity contest to evaluate how Americans feel about government instead of being seen as what it is—one functional part in a sprawling system.

Understanding and accepting how government works is essential to democracy. Only then can there be legitimate contribution to politics. This can come in many forms. From the Tea Party and ideological pressure groups to Occupy Wall Street, different people have found different ways of expressing themselves politically. The key lies in expressing it at all. We have seen how these movements affect the conversation in Washington and beyond. It is frightening that most of the American public still finds it satisfactory to vote once every four years and imagines that change will come from a single “great leader”.

There’s that word again—change. This time around, the myth of the presidency has risen to a whole new level, making disappointment with Obama so much stronger. He was elected in 2008 not only on a platform of changing policy from the horror of the Bush years but also on one of changing the very nature of politics.

Washington hasn’t changed radically in the past three years. But again, there is a fundamental disconnect in how government works and how people perceive it to work. Obama has adopted a distinct style of governance, one of pragmatic policymaking and reasonable discourse. He can only do so much to influence how Washington works. The zeal for change that accompanied his campaign disappeared as he went from candidate to president; without that zeal, there is no way the presidency could change the nature of the entire political system. The president is little without congressional support, but he is almost nothing without continued support from the electorate.

Change isn’t something you can buy at a convenience store and forget about the next day. It’s not instantaneous. It is a long-term process that requires public support and movement. President Obama has not been perfect, but let us not blind ourselves to reality. Even in the face of a dueling mandate, he has resolutely embodied good governance. He has invested his political capital in significant policy changes, leading one of the most productive administrations in decades. For the dreams of the 2008 campaign to become reality, we need to support the president for what he is and become active participants of democracy, working for change rather than simply casting a vote for it and waiting for someone else to do the job for us.