The deal-cutting approach to politics says that you do the smartest assessment you can of the political realities out there, and then adjust your agenda, tactics, and expectations to get the best outcome.
The movement approach to politics says you make changing those political realities a core part of your agenda, tactics, and expectations. It is not that the deal-cutting approach is more pragmatic. It is just easier and less imaginative.
The problem with Obama is not that he has been a bad deal-cutter. If anything, his administration has been remarkably good at it despite hardened Republican resistance. But Obama himself helped create the conditions that ensure his deal-cutting successes will never be seen as enough.
His biggest failure, and the thing that has disappointed and deflated his once-energized base of support the most, is that his campaign ignited a movement that his presidency quickly extinguished.
The promise of the Obama campaign was never that he would do a good job operating within the fix boundaries of American politics as he found them on inauguration day. It was that he had set something in motion that could rewrite the boundaries, move the walls, change the parameters.
Young people and progressives have been criticized for projecting too much into Obama’s vague agenda for change, or for having unrealistic expectations. This misreads what happened.
It is not that his supporters mistakenly heard him say he was going to do specific things he never said he would do, or believed that everything would get done overnight. Rather, it is that they were convinced they had become part of a presidential campaign that was evolving into a powerful political movement.
Activity replaced apathy. Excitement replaced boredom. Hope replaced resignation.
Most significantly, passive spectators watching the movement gain momentum on TV or online wanted to become active Obama supporters. People who had never viewed themselves as political started getting involved.
They made small donations to the movement on an unprecedented scale. They formed groups on their campuses and went door-to-door during the primaries and the national election. They talked constantly about this “new politics” with their friends and family.
There was genuine political excitement among liberals and progressives unlike anything they had experienced since the 1960s. For a brief time, the enthusiasm was not just real but justified.
The disappointment with Obama today is not so much that this movement was cast adrift through neglect, but that the deal-cutting obsession of the Obama administration actually snuffed it out.
The point is not that Obama should have gone on campaigning rather than get down to the business of being president. It is that he failed to realize that to become a transformative president — to deliver on change people could believe in — his only choice was to sustain and enlarge the movement he helped start.
He did the opposite. Analysts will spend decades trying to figure out not so much how he did it (that’s pretty obvious), but why.
Setting aside the conventional wisdom of pundits, there is actually very little that is fixed about the contours of American politics. There is no “set” American view or bias on any given subject — taxes on the ulra-rich, deficit spending on infrastructure to create jobs, global warming, the environment, drilling offshore, gays in the military.
Instead, there is a constant interplay between society and its leaders. At the instant of any given snapshot poll, Americans have a view on a range of topics. But leaders can inspire, challenge the status quo, change the terms of the debate, and force entrenched interests to play a constant game of catch-up.
When leaders give up before even trying — as they often do — we get the “iPod stuck on replay” version of American politics that pronounces the nation as genetically conservative.
Genuine leaders change the politics of the ordinary not by being “ideological,” but by taking clear, imaginative, and courageous stands in the face of determined opposition.
Thanks to decades of conditioning, Americans don’t really expect their leaders to take a stand on things. But when they do, folks sit up and notice. And political momentum builds as people respond and organize. In the end, it is up to the people to demand change and struggle for it. But leadership makes a world of difference.
An undercurrent of resentment is building against Obama from his base because his promise went far beyond mere promises. Many feel foolish for allowing a flicker of hope to interrupt their experienced pessimism.
History will credit Obama both for starting and stopping America’s first budding movement for change in the twenty-first century. If he is denied a second term, a key lesson will be don’t start what you can’t finish.