That was Obama’s pitch to America. He would allow all of us to escape the mundane reality of politics, to live that better story with him, and erase the messiness of the past and present—just as he had done for himself. In Dreams from My Father, Obama’s 1995 book about his itinerant childhood and work as a community organizer in Chicago, the pre-presidential candidate recalls his grandfather’s habit of rewriting uncomfortable truths about his own history in order to produce a better future. Obama, who as a child lived with his grandparents for many years, admits to picking up the habit himself: “It was this desire of his to obliterate the past,” he writes, “this confidence in the possibility of remaking the world from whole cloth, that proved to be his most lasting patrimony.”
Obama applied that very American tradition to politics. His campaigns would be about making the world a better place—more personable, less racially charged, more united in goals and respectful in temperament—more true, in other words, to the story we all wanted to believe about America. The ugliness of politics past would lose its grip on the reimagined future.
But the power to imagine is not the power to accomplish. Vague, high-minded goals get sullied when translated into specific, practical policies. Nearly a full term of a moribund economy has turned the words hope and change into bitter punch lines. As time passes, the suspicion grows that the same narrative gift that made Obama so interesting and fresh in the mid-1990s contained the seeds of his failure as a president. Storytelling, it turns out, is no substitute for governance, and nothing ruins a promising writer faster than the practice of wielding power. As the allure of Obama’s dreams wears off, so has the allure of his presidency. Obama promised to change politics; instead, politics changed him.
While Douthat takes a bigger picture approach, echoing some of our Skowronek inspired points:
Sometimes Obama-era liberalism has disappointed because it has failed outright. The defeat of cap-and-trade legislation and the stillborn push for immigration reform exposed the deep fissures within the Democratic Party, and particularly the divide between the enlightened do-goodism of the party’s upper-middle-class supporters and the economic interests of its remaining blue-collar constituents.
The steadily worsening deficit picture, meanwhile, has been a reminder that an expanding government balance sheet makes sense only if you can persuade taxpayers to pay more to cover it, which Obama’s party hasn’t done. More important, given the limit to how much money can be extracted from the wealthy, it makes sense only if you persuade middle class taxpayers to pay more, which Obama’s party hasn’t even tried to do…
Again, every administration has its share of disappointments, and every ideology has to make concessions to political reality. But what we don’t see in this campaign cycle is much soul-searching from Democrats about the ways in which their agenda hasn’t worked out as planned.
Instead, in a country facing a continued unemployment crisis and a looming deficit crunch, liberals have rallied behind a White House whose only real jobs program is “stay the course” and whose plan to deal with long-term deficits relies on the woefully insufficient promise to tax the 1 percent. When Obama insiders wax optimistic about what a second term might bring, they mostly talk about pursuing legislation on climate change and immigration yet again, without explaining why things will turn out differently this time around.
Highly recommend both.