Where has this Barack Obama been? If Obama had governed like this in 2009, he’d be a transformational, historic presidentRoundup
They say the president gave his seventh State of the Union address last Tuesday, but personally, I count eight. On February 24, 2009, Barack Obama’s 35th full day in office, he delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress to explain how America had gotten into its economic mess and how his just-passed $787 billion stimulus bill would help get it out. He spoke about foreign policy, too: about his plans to wrench America’s orientation toward the rest of the world away from the snarling martial barks of the Bush years, rebuild alliances, reestablish diplomacy as a first resort, and use “all elements of our national power”—for, he concluded, “living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger.” It started Obama’s first term off with a wave of nearly universal approval—even among Republicans.
I’ve always seen that speech as a key to understanding a certain sort of road not taken by this administration. It’s one that could have led Obama to considerably more success than he has enjoyed, and perhaps even fulfilled expectations that his would be a “transformational” and not a “transactional” presidency—a failure Obama himself seemed to acknowledge by explicitly, almost apologetically, comparing himself unfavorably to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. I agree with him. It’s not that he has not scored important, even historic successes as president: the Affordable Care Act, the Iranian nuclear deal. But a president is transformational when he meets head on, and transcends, the preeminent historical crisis of his times—the incapacity of the weak American state to deal with a Depression in Roosevelt’s case, the sectional crisis over slavery in Abraham Lincoln’s. Add Ronald Reagan, who Obama once cited as another model of a transformational president, whose accomplishment was turning “liberalism” into a dirty word. Obama’s historical task was to do the same for conservatism. It hasn’t happened; conservatism has instead thrived. That was not foreordained.
Remember the Republican response that evening in 2009? It featured Bobby Jindal’s infamous schoolboy singsong flaying of the new law as a sinkhole of waste—140 million “for something called volcano monitoring!” (A month afterward, a volcano sent up a 60,000-foot cloud of ash over parts of Alaska, including Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla.) The pundits, even Republican ones, declared it the end of an era. As David Brooks put it on CNN:
“To come up at this moment in history with a stale, government-is-the-problem, we can’t trust the federal government—it’s just a disaster for the Republican Party.…in a moment when only the federal government is big enough to actually do stuff—to just ignore all that, and just say ‘government is a problem, corruption, earmarks, wasteful spending,’ it’s just a form of nihilism. It’s just not where the country is. It’s not where the future of the country is.”
The American people agreed. Obama’s full-throated defense of the role of government in stabilizing the U.S. economy, and the world, got a 92 percent overall approval rating. ...
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