Sunday, January 29, 2017

Barack Obama Was A Test, And We Failed It

No small amount of my own political depression over the past few months come not just from the arrival of Donald Trump, but also from the departure of Barack Obama.

I have lived through nine Administrations that I can remember, not counting the one that just began (Eisenhower and Kennedy were also part of my life but, except for Kennedy's assassination, I remember nothing about either of them).  I am not just saying this as a Democrat, or even as an American, but as an individual:  I regard Obama as the best president who served during my lifetime. I do so not only because of his substantive accomplishments, which are very real whether conservatives wish to acknowledge it or not, but also because of the manner in which he conducted his presidency.  Without scandal, with an unwavering commitment to reason over passion, and with a sincere and badly underrated desire to serve all of the people of this county, he inspired in me, and I'm sure in many others, a rare and unforgettable kind of quiet confidence about the way our country was being governed.

Without a doubt, what was most inspirational about that confidence is that Obama managed to deliver it, day in and day out, in the face of opposition from Republicans and other conservatives that, day in and day out, bordered on the hysterical and irrational, and frequently crossed the border, especially after they learned that Obama was not going to be intimidated by them.  Perhaps this is best illustrated by his signature policy and political accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act. It was enacted at great cost to Obama's political capital and to the Democrats political position at the national and state levels.  It took years to fully implement, and that implementation at times left a great deal to be desired.  None of this stopped Obama from standing behind it and seeing it though.

As a result, today, the ACA has helped at least 20 million Americans gain health insurance, and has presented Republicans with a problem:  how to repeal and replace a program that they have staked their success on eliminating, now that polls show that people like it.  It has been heartening, even amusing at times, to see the varying ways in which this has unfolded, from the voices of Republican governors urging their Congressional counterparts not to move so quickly in repealing Obamacare, to the sight of a Republican House member fleeing angry Obamacare supporters.  My, how the tables have turned on this subject.

The sad reality, however, is that Barack Obama could have accomplished so much more than he did. The fact that he did not, however, is not his fault.  We failed him.  And, by "we," I'm referring to Democrats in one instance, and Republicans in another.

Democrats have a tendency to be impatient with the pace of progress, and frustrated by the fact that progress requires the occasional compromise, especially when it takes place in a federal system that is designed to stymie rapid, unilateral action.  Worse, Democrats also have a tendency to neglect the grass-roots dimension of politics and, along with it, the need to show up for elections year in and year out, even when the Presidency isn't at stake.  They got Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 and said, in effect "Okay, that's enough."  And, by doing so, they created a vacuum in the political life of the country that Republicans were determined to fill at any cost.

And fill it they did--at any cost.  Last year's blockade of Merrick Garland' nomination to the Supreme Court is without a doubt the most notorious example.  Purity has a very high price--in this case, the balance of power on the highest court in the land for at least a generation.  The harm that may be done to progressive interests is incalculable.  And all because Democrats couldn't be bothered to show up at the polls in 2014 to stop Mitch McCONnell from seizing power and shredding constitutional government.

But that's not all Republicans did.

Obama's Presidency gave them a chance to shed their image as a party largely based on white power. As illustrated during the debate on health care reform, Obama was willing to give them an alternative based largely on Mitt Romney's reform plan in Massachusetts (or "Romneycare,") as it was known back then.  He did so in the hope that they would see it as a gesture of good faith, as well as with the calculation that it would be a good way to co-opt their potential opposition to reform.

What Obama failed to appreciate, and what Republicans didn't fail to appreciate, is the fact that, without race-based politics, there is no Republican Party.  And so, they doubled down on a bad bet because it was the only bet they had, in order to avoid extinction.  Fortunately for them (but not for the country), there are still enough bigots to make it work.  And it did, with surprisingly little cost, but leaving a legacy of hatred that will compromise political debate in America for years to come. Perhaps forever.

I'm skeptical about whether or not we will see another African-American President.  And that's tragic, in so many ways.  Barack Obama was a unique appeal to the ideals of this country, and to the better angels in our souls.  And all of us blew it.  Frankly, I'm not sure we'll get another chance for redemption.  But, as long as there are people in this nation who support the America Obama was trying to build, we have to go on trying.

Get some rest, Mr. (former) President.  You've earned it.  And forgive us.  And, above all, please find a way to stay engaged in the political life of our nation.  We need you.  Even if we didn't deserve you.

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