Regular listeners will have noticed my reluctance to criticize the Obama Administration from the left. I have not been happy about the results from Washington but the question is who or what is to blame for that. When I voted for Obama, I did not assume that any one person could change American politics alone. I assumed that it would take a sustained effort on many fronts to do that. And I assumed that Obama would be unable to be as liberal as many of us wanted him to be. Partly because I had seen in other places the cultural misunderstandings and assumptions that swirled around black chief executives and the necessity that they cling to the center if they were to stay in office. Obama in Illinois had already learned that his supporters saw him as a bridge, not as a leftist. So I voted for Obama, I wanted Obama, I’m thrilled that most of our fellow Americans did too, but I never expected that he was or could be the second coming of the Messiah.
Many well-meaning people have criticized him from the left, arguing that he could have been stronger about this or twisted arms about that. That’s too easy for us armchair liberals to say. We have only a limited notion of the pressures and politics that converge on the President. So yes, I wanted a better health care law, a bigger stimulus, environmental legislation and the BTU tax that eluded Bill Clinton in his first term. But thank God that presidents are not dictators, monarchs who can command what they want. That’s not America, not the Constitution our Founders bequeathed us, not the republic to which we pledge allegiance.
If I have to point fingers, I’d point it at Harry Reid. Yet it is strange to claim that the Senate leadership let us down. They got lots of things done. What they didn’t do is the grandstanding at which the minority has excelled. Instead of making the Republicans filibuster, instead of drawing attention to the bills they wanted to pass and the Republicans blocked, the Senate Democrats actually tried to govern, looked for compromise and tried to find ways to pass legislation. If it means that they sunk the movement even for a better politics and a better country, I will fault them. But at the same time I respect them for trying to get legislation passed, for trying to make the improvements we sent them to Washington to make.
A revolution in politics needs lots of victories. It needs to change the face of a Supreme Court which has decided who it wanted in the White House and who it wants to fund and win elections. Most of all, a revolution in politics needs a liberal majority with staying power. The conservatives built a movement, a deeply committed movement, over several decades. We liberals spent those years studying policy, studying how to govern, not how to build and sustain a movement. If we want a revolution, and I certainly do, then we have to stay the course, we have to be constant partners, not fickle lovers, we have to show the strength of character and commitment that will make it possible for people like Barack Obama to look like a Messiah. And we’ll need to do a lot more than pray.
This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 19, 2010.