1868: The slaves have been freed, and the Constitution amended guaranteeing "equal protection under the laws."
1918: The Armistice has been signed, ending "the war to end all wars."
2008: Barack Obama is elected president of the United States, promising change under the slogan "Yes, we can!"
Moments marking major historical disappointments, and squandered opportunities.
A few weeks ago, in response to Paul Krugman's much-noted column declaring Barack Obama a most "consequential" and "successful" president, I wrote a piece with the title, "Sorry, Mr. Krugman: Obama Was Elected Holding a Royal Flush, and Then Declared His Hand 'Ace High.'" My point was that defeating the ugly force that has taken over the Republican Party was Job One, that it was a task that could have been accomplished, that instead he "fed the beast that has consistently sought to thwart and destroy him," and that consequently the destructive force has maintained the power to act like a wrecking ball against the American political system and against everything our politics touches.
Defeating that ugly force was Job One because, as we have seen, none of the other vital tasks that face America -- whether it be stopping our descent into plutocracy, or meeting the challenge of climate change, or making our socio-economic system work for all Americans, or any of the other many challenges we face -- can be accomplished until power gets drained away from that force.
(I have been painting an elaborate portrait of this "destructive force" throughout my "Press the Battle" series, for example in the piece "The Republican Party's Extraordinary Pattern of Destructiveness".)
On one of the sites on which my "Royal Flush" piece ran -- a place where my ideas are generally well-received -- I ran into considerable flak. On this site, which is a forum for Democrats, a variety of readers objected that it was not reasonable for me to claim that President Obama could have done much better to prevail over the destructive, obstructionist Republicans who made it their priority to make him fail.
What's important in this -- let me say here right off -- is not about President Obama, but about something bigger and deeper. It's about whether there's any real hope for America, and whether specifically there's hope that Liberal America can and will play the role that our nation needs for it to play.
President Obama will soon be part of our past. But the future of our nation depends on the ability of Liberal America to rouse itself to do battle effectively. With that in mind, I'll continue the story.
In response to the flak I encountered, I posted a second entry, in which I asked:
So let me pose this question to those who think me wrong in my critique of the president: which of the following points would you disagree with?
1) The Republicans, as an opposition party during the Obama presidency, have behaved disgracefully, in unprecedented ways that profoundly violate American political norms.
2) This kind of behavior should be punished, not rewarded.
3) It has not been punished, and indeed in 2010, it was rewarded by voters, many of whom had been successfully conned by an avalanche of lies from the Republicans throughout the preceding two years.
4) That behavior could have been punished had the president properly used the "bully pulpit" that the president alone in our nation commands. He can get the public's attention, and could have used that exceptional platform to called out the Republicans' conduct for what it was. He could have shown the American people how fundamentally un-American (and unprecedented) was their behavior, how contrary to how our Founders intended our system to work, how injurious to the good of the nation. With the right kind of message, delivered with the rhetorical force of which he had shown himself capable, he could have made the Republicans pay a political price for their disgraceful political conduct, and compelled them to choose between either changing their ways or continuing to pay that price.
5) But President Obama did almost none of that, made almost no use of his bully pulpit to call out the scandalous Republican course in opposition, particularly in the first two years. (But even now has still hardly spoken up in any forceful way.) The Republicans got away with their scandalous campaign to delegitimize the president with the birther lie, got away with their abuse of the filibuster, got away with their utterly unpatriotic strategy of obstructionism, etc. etc.
My interlocutors -- with some of whom, incidentally, I am acquainted, and whom I respect -- were not persuaded. Among the responses I got were these:
•"What bully pulpit?" The "wildly dysfunctional media landscape" the president faces would inevitably have defeated his efforts to get a message to the American people.
•"Can't see how Republicans' behavior COULD have been punished if it had been called out."
•The president could do nothing because the Republicans were irremediably determined to bring him down.
•When he took office, the economic crisis was so intense the American people were deeply frightened about their economic future. The people were not in a frame of mind to think logically, and the president had to attend to managing a crisis.
It may be that some of this defense of President Obama was an expression of partisan loyalty: good Democrats wanting to think well of the president in whose election and re-election they invested so much of themselves. I understand that feeling, as I found it an extremely painful process myself, during the first two years of his presidency, to recognize how badly Obama was blowing the historic opportunity and responsibility he'd been handed.
But I don't think partisan rationalizing is the main basis for their arguments. I believe, rather, that their conclusion -- that it was impossible for Barack Obama, as president, to have fought and defeated the destructive force relentlessly attacking him and thwarting his efforts -- reflects their fundamental understanding of the how the world works.
And I find that truly scary.
It would surely be scary if my interlocutors were right in their judgment of what's possible. Just think what would it mean if even the President of the United States -- and in particular one who had the status and aura possessed by Barack Obama when he first took office -- was powerless to get the American people to see and condemn the disgraceful behavior of the Republican opposition.
Scary because if even the president could not have effectively turned the public against the scandalous course the Republicans had chosen, then how could anyone else?
But that's not what actually scares me because I believe their view of what's possible is quite wrong, and in a most important and telling way.
What truly scares me is that these good, highly motivated Democratic activists cannot envision any way that President Obama could have fought, discredited, and turned back this destructive political force.
Again, the issue here is not President Obama, as big a disappointment as he has been. That's water over the dam. What's at issue is the capacity of Liberal America to do what the nation desperately needs for it to do.
In that exchange, we find yet another window into the worldview of Liberal America that has rendered it woefully weak in this time of national crisis.
As I will show in the next installment, "Yes We Could Have!"