Obama’s challenge

By Rob Schofield

January 22, 2014

It’s one of the great ironies of the Barack Obama presidency: the more he tries to govern from the middle and the more corporate profits and the stock markets soar, the more conservatives deride him as a “leftist” and a “socialist.”

Some have argued persuasively that a huge share of the Obama hatred is really about race and culture and, indeed, it’s hard to imagine that the president would face the kind of vicious attacks he is forced to endure every day if he was pursuing the exact same policies in the person of, say, an Anglo, cowboy-boot-wearing rancher from South Dakota.

That said, the ultimate bottom line in politics (as it is in the president’s favorite realm of entertainment — i.e., big time sports) is performance. Get stuff done and “win” and people will sing your praises. Play “five-hundred ball” and fail to deliver the results people want and even honorable, ethical, intelligent leaders will be subjected to attacks and name-calling that will make your hair curl.

And so it is today, five years into the Obama presidency. Like a coach who’s won half of his games but no big championships, Obama is liked (but not loved) by his supporters and loathed by his critics.

So what should the president do? How does he break the gridlock in Washington and get some big wins? How does he assure that he will be more than just a lame duck caretaker for the final three years of his presidency?

One option he would do well to consider is to go back to one of the basic tactics that catapulted him to political stardom in the first place (and that helped him win North Carolina in the 2008 election): thinking big. There’s no doubt that his skin color and ethnic heritage were a big part of what made Obama’s elevation to the presidency such a momentous development back in ‘08, but what really set his election apart was the sense that big, historic change was afoot in the country.

That’s one of the reasons so many drew parallels between Obama’s election and the elections of FDR and Lincoln. Here was a surprising and out-of-the-mold new president put into power during a moment of profound national crisis by an electorate yearning for bold, passionate leadership. If ever a president had a mandate to champion real change, try new things and directly confront the plutocrats in charge of the government and the economy, this was the one.

Unfortunately, Obama chose a different path that was – though honorable and plausible – ultimately, frequently uninspired and ineffective. Rather than trying to forge a new American political consensus by mobilizing passionate supporters and actually shifting the political pendulum, the new president opted to try and broker a compromise between the existing and badly divided political powers that be.

Whether it was naiveté, lousy advice or just a bad call on his part, this path has limited his presidency. This is not to diminish the many extremely important accomplishments of his administration; pulling the nation out of an economic collapse, ending its overseas wars and passing once-in-a-generation health care reform were all huge accomplishments. There have been many others.

Nor is it to diminish the unprecedented amounts of corporate money and right-wing media distortions arrayed against him. No president has ever been the target of such an incessant, hysterical and lavishly-funded assault since before he even officially took office.

Five years in, however, it’s clear that the Obama presidency has not yet achieved the kind of transformative change so many had hoped was possible. Today, the political right remains just as loud and intransigent as it would have been had he confronted it and its underwriters directly. Meanwhile, the president’s progressive base is divided between those who remain loyal and thankful for the improvements won and disasters avoided and those who are dispirited and disillusioned by what they see as a huge lost opportunity.

Recently, veteran Raleigh political commentator Barlow Herget authored a persuasive commentary in which he urged Senator Hagan to examine the “give ‘em hell” 1948 presidential campaign Harry Truman as a model for reviving her own rather stagnant political fortunes.

While it’s not at all clear that Hagan has that kind of “give ‘em hell” spirit to draw on, President Obama certainly does. He would do well to spend the next three years fighting loudly, passionately and persistently for real, progressive change. Such a revived fighting spirit would be good for him, good for progressives, good for North Carolina and good for the nation.

Rob Schofield is the Director of Research and Policy Development at N.C. Policy Watch.