The Non-Partisan President
I first heard Barack Obama speak in April 2006 at the annual Democratic Farm Labor Party convention in downtown Minneapolis. At the time I was working for Minnesota Law & Politics, which was part of Key Pro Media, which was owned by Vance Opperman, and since Opperman was a major donor to the DFL we had a pretty good table for the show. An embarrassingly good table. During appetizers, I looked around and saw famous faces. Hey, there's Mayor Ryback. Behind me. Hey, there's Walter Mondale. Behind me. Apologies, Mr. Vice-President. Hope I'm not obscuring your view.
The speech Sen. Obama gave that night was the speech he gave often in 2006, and which became the prologue to his second book, “The Audacity of Hope.” Here's a sample:
You don't need a poll to know that the vast majority of Americans—Republican, Democrat, and independent—are weary of the dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth. Whether we're from red states or blue states, we feel in our gut the lack of honesty, rigor and common sense in our policy debates, and dislike what appears to be a contentious menu of false or cramped choices.
The guy was talking my language. He was articulating the great unsaid in American politics. He was offering a third way.
Now to the present. I have some friends on the left who are outraged, outraged by the tax deal cut earlier this month, which basically boils down to: We'll extend the Bush tax cuts even for the richest 2% and you give us extended unemployment benefits. They see it as a gigantic betrayal. They fill their status updates on Facebook with invective.
Now I'm someone who thinks the wealthiest people in this country should be be taxed at a 50% rate (as they were for most of the Reagan years), or maybe at a 70% rate (as in the '70s). Tea Partiers seem to idolize the stability of the 1950s ... when the tax rate for the richest people in the country was more than 90%. I wouldn't go that far but wouldn't mind scaring some people with it.
Even so, I don't see the deal as a great betrayal. The opposite. I know this is who Pres. Obama is. I know this is the reason he appealed to me in the first place. But I am amused as the cries of the left recede and the cries of the right crescendo. I'm with Andrew Sullivan here:
I think of Frank Rich and Paul Krugman as brilliant men, but profoundly resistant to the core rationale of the Obama presidency (and the underlying dynamic of its accumulating success). That rationale is an attempt to move past the paradigms of the boomer years to a pragmatic, liberal reformism that takes America as it is, while trying to make it more of what it can be. Now, there's little doubt that in contrast to recent decades, Obama has nudged the direction leftward - re-regulating Wall Street after the catastrophe, setting up universal health insurance through the private sector, recalibrating America's role in the world from preachy bully to hegemonic facilitator. But throughout he has tried, as his partisan critics have complained, not to be a partisan president, to recall, as he put it in that recent press conference, that this is a diverse country, that is is time we had a president who does not repel or disparage or ignore those who voted against him or those who have grown to despise him. ... He really is trying to be what he promised: president of the red states as well as the blue states. And a president who gets shit done.
The results after two years: universal health insurance, the rescue of Detroit, the avoidance of a Second Great Depression, big gains in private sector growth and productivity, three stimulus packages (if you count QE2), big public investments in transport and green infrastructure, the near-complete isolation of Iran, the very public exposure of Israeli intransigence and extremism, a reset with Russia (plus a new START), big drops in illegal immigration and major gains in enforcement, a South Korea free trade pact, the end of torture, and a debt commission that has put fiscal reform squarely back on the national agenda. Oh, and of yesterday, the signature civil rights achievement of ending the military's ban on openly gay servicemembers.
In some ways, and despite his famous press conference, I think the least surprised person by all the anguish and disappointment on the left is Pres. Obama himself, since, in “The Audacity of Hope,” he anticipated it:
Undoubtedly, some of these views will get me in trouble. I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.
How's that hopey-changey thing working out for us? Slow and steady.