One thing that every major policy initiative the Obama administration has taken/has been forced to take on (most of them are in the latter category given the stakes) early in their term have in common is their overwhelming complexity. I am glad we have a president with real brains and a mind that can understand complexity, because when I think about the problems we have, and what it will take to solve them, the idea of George W. Bush, John McCain, or Sarah Palin being in charge gives me a bad case of the shivers. Think about what is on this president's plate: solving the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, dealing with the mess in Afghanistan, finding a long term international solution to climate change, finally reforming health care in a comprehensive way, dealing with an utterly out of control and corrupt financial sector, finally finding a fair and comprehensive solution to immigration reform. I know I'm missing some big things, but you get my point. There's not a single issue on this list that is simple to resolve, either substantively or politically. This level of major issues and crises to handle really does rival only a few other presidents- Washington, Adams, and Jefferson in our nation's earliest days, Lincoln in the Civil War years, FDR. So thank goodness he's smart, and thank goodness he has surrounded himself with a lot of really bright advisers, because to make progress -- let alone resolve -- these issues is going to take a huge amount of brain power.
Brain power is not enough, though. History has numerous examples of smart presidents whose presidencies were not especially successful -- John and John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon all come to mind. John Adams was just as smart as Jefferson, Buchanan had as much brain power as Lincoln, Hoover was considered by his peers a genius while FDR was considered an intellectual lightweight. Yet all three of the former lost the confidence of the American people and essentially failed as presidents, while all three of the latter not only succeeded as Presidents but became known in history as three of our greatest. They kept the American's people's confidence in spite of the hard times they were leading the country through.
In spite of the incredibly complex and dangerous challenges and crises those great presidents faced, in spite of setbacks they had and mistakes they made, the public ultimately stuck with them through all the tough times. My belief is that the reason that happened was not because of the results these presidents achieved but because the people felt confident that those presidents shared their values and were really fighting on their behalf. Jefferson barely made it into office after the massive electoral college meltdown in the 1800 election, did hugely controversial things such as the Louisiana Purchase, and was attacked as viciously as any president in history, but his faith in regular people and in democracy itself (still a very contentious idea in the early American political debate) bonded him to Americans as they were trying to forge their identity as a new kind of nation. Lincoln suffered setback after setback in the Civil War, but his noble spirit, steadfast values to his vision of America, and his unyielding determination made the country love him in spite of the horrors of the war. And FDR was able to forge a lasting and passionate bond with his countrymen and women even with times so tough, and later with that awful war against tough odds we had to fight. In every case, the country knew their presidents were fighting for them, knew their presidents shared their values, and even in the toughest of times remained loyal to them as leaders.
We face another juncture in history where the challenges are incredibly tough, the problems devastatingly complicated. The test of this president through all these tough times is whether regular Americans trust that he is fighting for them. Through all the complicated policy debates, and all the complicated politics, does he make choices that show he is on their side? Will he step up and fight for a public option that will give genuine competition to the private insurers that people know do not have their best interests at heart? Will he really take on the "Too Big To Fail" banks and rein in their power and corruption of our political and economic system? Will he really fight like crazy to squeeze out every new job in this economy, not just tell people that "jobs are a lagging indicator" and say that they will get here eventually?
I am an optimist on these kinds of questions. I believe that the president has good values and that at the end of the day, he will deliver. But watching the process is sometimes a worrisome thing.
I will close with this thought. One of the reasons President Obama's mentor and dear friend Ted Kennedy was able to get so many things done was because he was such a fighter. His progressive allies fighting for immigrants, for civil rights, for labor rights, for the poor always knew he was giving heart and soul on their behalf, and that he was getting everything he could possibly get for their causes through the legislative process. They never doubted that even when he finally did compromise at the end of the day that the compromise was not a sellout, it was the best deal he could possibly get. We knew, without a doubt, which side he was on, and we knew it was ours. If progressives, and regular working Americans, see Obama pick a side- our side- and really fight for it, no matter what happens over the next 3 years, we will stick with him and fight for him, too.