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Where Have You Gone, Barack Obama?

May 22, 2013

Move over, Jeremiah Wright.

Barack Obama is no longer an angry black man, a closet Muslim or, gasp, a Socialist.

He is the devil himself.  He is Richard Nixon.

The headlines out of Washington are blaring.  The IRS targeting possible right-wing fringe groups.  TalkingpointsGate.  With far greater credence, the shady reporter tapping sanctioned by the Justice Department.

Do I see Obama waving the victory sign on the lawn in front of the presidential helicopter?  Laughable.

But the power of his personal narrative as a force for real progressive policy change took flight some time ago.

Democrats were determined to fall in love and Barack Obama was oh so available.  Progressives, still frustrated by the unrealized expectations of the Clinton years and very steamed from two terms of the culturally alien George W. Bush, took to Obama hard in 2008.

He was the most perfect projection of liberal fantasy– a more inspirational icon than Hillary Rodham Clinton, who toiled in vineyards of lefty non-profits, child advocacy groups and McGovern-originated thought circles for decades.  Obama’s appeal as the first black president, coupled with his opposition to intervention in Iraq, brought the anti-war and civil rights movements’ multi-decade march on the Democratic Party full circle.

Obama has kept his most fundamental promise to his supporters: no new messyforeign entanglements.  Bin Laden, Guantanamo, Libya- accepted compromises in a dangerous world.  But Obama has never let his olive branch credentials wilt, no matter how hot the Syrian summer.

But after eight years of trying to convince their most conservative friends that President Bush was nothing more than Dick Cheney’s thought bubble, liberals didn’t only want a change in foreign policy.  They wanted to feel at home in a nation where conspicuous religious evangelizing and resurgent secular nationalism caused them dis-ease.

But on social issues, the President has seemed late and half-hearted.  Andrew Cuomojumped the historical wave on marriage equality; the President appeared small by comparison.  Battles over abortion are flaring anew.  The Supreme Court isreviewing affirmativeaction.  State university systems, the great multi-racial, middle class promise, are fraying.

Obama’s boldest policy move, the first meaningful stab at health policy in a decade, yielded vociferous opposition from conservatives without any real change in voter thinking about how to fund care– a missed opportunity that Democrats know jeopardizes larger and moredesperately needed reforms to the long term care system.

Obama’s political candle is burning at both ends, singed by cable news-drivenscandalettes on its right and the slow burn of deflated energy on its left.

Can the President rekindle the flame?

First, Obama needs to lean back into his own story.  American’s hitched a ride on the hope express before they were even sure where it was going.  The only way for Obama to rebuild political capital and score any policy victories on immigrationgun violence or tax reform is to reconnect what voters know about his life to his aspirations for public policy.  This child of difference must help us make sense of our multi-ethnic, international future.

Americans still like Obama; I am unconvinced that he has exhausted the full strength of his uniquely American journey as a persuasive political force.

Second, celebrate success.  2013 is an off year election in national politics.  But there are hundreds of other elections around country.  LA just elected a new Mayor.  New Yorkers are picking a successor to Mike Bloomberg.  Obama, with innovative public thinkers, needs to fully join the conversation about how communities, and metro regions, chart their destiny.  With a re-election campaign in a blue state, I’m sure Chris Christie is still available.

Local governments are most citizens’ daily demonstration of governmental effectiveness.  And most of the good things done by local governments, from parks to drainage systems to disaster recovery, involve federal funds.  Obama’s progressive policy prospects for the balance of his term, and any long term improvement in the Democrats’ political brand, requires increased public confidence in the effectiveness of public spending.

Local control was ceded to the flow of dollars federal lawmakers used to lubricate the wheels of social and racial change in 1960s and 70s.  Obama carries the baggage of the federal government without credit for the fruits of its largesse.  With so many eyes on local politics, he should wrap himself in effective Mayors, County Executives and other high profile local leaders across the nation.

Third, Obama should endorse Hillary Clinton as his successor.  Otherwise, Obama may drown his own presidency in perpetual response to the political gyrations of Clintonland.   It’s a distraction the President can’t afford.  There is only upside to being a cheerleader for another presidential first. If she runs in 2016, she will be the party nominee.  If she doesn’t, all bets are off anyway.  Biden will forgive him.

Second terms are a bitch– from Iran-Contra to Monica to Katrina.  Obama’s “Tricky Dick” headlines today will likely join more heated panting about overreaching administration appointees as the mid-term elections approach.  The President’s supporters can take some cynical solace that he is now compared to the patron of America’s silent majority rather than Chicago’s social agitators.  It’s tempting to smile at the irony, hang tight to the history you’ve already made and spend 30 months keeping Congress at bay.

But presidential fatigue from an obnoxious, six-year long, racially-tinged culture war will be far more damaging to Obama’s legacy than any more stupidity at the IRS.  The President who promised change we could believe in must keep his own faith until the end.

Obama travelled far on Dreams from his Father; now, he must now share, clearly and passionately, his dream for his daughters.

And for mine.

Mr. President, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

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