The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe has a terrific piece Monday documenting President Barack Obama in the final months of his presidency, a man elected on the promise of hope and change who is watching the worst of our politics play out in the race to replace him. He writes:
“Obama will close out his presidency at what is perhaps the least hopeful moment in American politics in decades, a time when the two major-party candidates have historically low approval ratings and are locked in a bitter and coarse election contest. For much of this year, Obama, like the people who pack his rallies, has puzzled over what happened.”
On virtually every measure of optimism — Do you think your children will have a better life than you? Do you think the country is headed in the right direction? — things are as bad (if not worse) than when Obama took office.
In a January 2009 NBC-Wall Street Journal poll taken on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, 26 percent of respondents said the country was going in the right direction, while 59 percent said it was on the wrong track. In the most recent NBC-WSJ poll, which was in the field earlier this month, 29 percent of people said things were heading in the right direction, while 65 percent said they were on the wrong track. Factoring in the polls’ margins of error, it’s safe to say that absolutely nothing has changed during Obama’s presidency when it comes to how people feel about where the country is headed.
THAT’S NOT HIS FAULT, Democrats will shout. Republicans — led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky. — pledged from the second Obama was elected to obstruct him and have spent the past eight years systematically blocking his attempts to make government work.
Sure. There’s no question that congressional Republicans haven’t exactly been willing companions in Obama’s attempts to set an agenda for the country. At the same time, the burden really was with Obama, not Republicans, when it came to changing the way politics in Washington work.
Why? Because he was the one who kept promising that he could fix things.
Here’s Obama in Denver when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008:
“America, our work will not be easy. The challenges we face require tough choices. And Democrats, as well as Republicans, will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past, for part of what has been lost these past eight years can’t just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose, and that’s what we have to restore.”
And more from that same speech:
“For 18 long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said, ‘enough’ to the politics of the past. You understand that, in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result.”
This comes from his inauguration speech in January 2009:
“On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
“Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
Obama set the standard for himself. Purposely. Because he truly believed that his life — from being the son of a white Kansas woman and an African father all the way to his Senate victory in 2004 — was evidence of a unique ability to solve problems previously thought unsolvable. Obama saw — and maybe still sees? — himself as a man outside the historic norms, someone not hidebound by the ways things always work. (That’s not unique among presidents. The idea that you alone are best suited to represent a nation of more than 300 million people requires a deep belief in your exceptionalism.)
The problem, of course, was that the challenges of polarization and partisanship proved too big for Obama to handle. And that’s not solely because Republicans wouldn’t work with him. It’s at least in part because Obama was broadly dismissive of Congress and the need for him to create relationships — with Republicans and Democrats — there.
That’s not to lay all of the blame at Obama’s feet, either. Not close. The truth of our increasing polarization is far more complex — based on the self-sorting of the country over the past few decades, a redistricting process that rewards extremism and a primary election process that does the same. As well as a media in silos that allows people never to have their beliefs challenged. And a thousand more factors.
But remember that Obama, as a candidate and as president, promised that he was the person who could fix what ailed the country. In retrospect, he bit off far more than he could chew. This campaign — in all of its horror — is proof that no one person can change the unsavoriness of our current politics.