America likes charismatic optimists. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton. That was why I favored Obama over Hilary in '08. And why I thought he ultimately won. America was feeling down and needed someone to help change the mood, pull the country in a new direction, get us looking forward. Obama's speech at the 2004 convention. Si se puede. Yes we can. All charismatic optimism.
What went wrong for Obama? Turns out he wasn't just optimistic about the Republican response to him, he was naively and ineffectively so, compromising for compromise' sake. He seemed driven by the grand notion that he could single-handedly change Washington. Too often he ended up asking for too little and conceding too much in his confrontations with Republicans.
In the stimulus bill negotiations early in his administration, Obama gave up $40 billion in aid to the states, and got not a single Republican House vote in return. That money would have been spent immediately. It would have kept services open and workers employed, with positive ripple effects in states like California whose debts ballooned after the crash. He still had a Congressional majority. He could have sent a bill down the next day, specifically for that $40 billion to the states, and, like the initial bill, it could have passed without a single GOP vote.
America also likes winners. And people who fight for their convictions. The Democrats and Obama have been caught between their espoused principles and their Wall Street funders. The Republicans have no such conflict. They want the same things as their funders. So they go for touchdowns. Too often the Democrats and Obama are willing to stop at the 20-yard line. Americans can tell the difference.
We all know it's a lot more complicated than that. The fanning of fear has played a huge role, as has the flood of undisclosed campaign cash. But, allow me to fast forward to last night's State of the Union.
Obama's party took a terrible beating in the recent election, and he is speaking for the first time to a Congress in which the GOP holds majorities in both houses. Yet he looks relaxed and confident. One of the talking heads said after the speech that for the first time she got the feeling that Obama would like a third term. Maybe, but I also got the feeling for the first time that Obama could enjoy the freedom of being president for two more years -- but only two more years.
As young as he is, for as long as he lives, he will never again have this much power. Sure, he faces enormous obstacles in the form of both the numbers and the approach of his Congressional opposition. Yet, perhaps their dominance gives him even greater freedom. Why not go for what you really want, see how far you can move public opinion, and how far public opinion can move what happens -- now or in 2016.
He's laid out a vision of where we need to go. Higher minimum wages, progressive taxation and other programs to restore the middle class, especially women and children. Foreign policy that is strategic rather than impulsive, especially in the use of the military. Accelerating our response to climate change. Rebuilding our infrastructure. Continuing down the path of immigration reform.
It's an unusual position to be in, no doubt: Structurally limited by GOP dominance of Congress and the Supreme Court, but still the most powerful man in America. What if he chooses to take full advantage of all the assets of being president -- above and beyond executive power? What if, unbound by campaign calculation, he chooses to use every tool at his disposal -- the bully pulpit in particular -- to achieve the maximum impact? And what if he also chooses to use that power to achieve the highest good?
A guy can dream.