A Promise Made, A Promise Kept
By Khan Shoieb '13
Adapted from a speech delivered on March 24, 2010.

“He reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games. But he hasn’t completed a single game, and I’d like to see him finish one.” So said Henry Kissinger of President Obama roughly five months ago.

Well, it looks like he has just finished his first game. President Obama recently signed into law the most significant piece of legislation since Medicare. He used 22 different pens to ink his name, a symbol of the vastness of an effort to expand health insurance that has consumed the nation for over a year.

Indeed, the signing ceremony signified the end of a protracted and ugly chess match. Waged in the context of the Democratic Party’s push for a continuation of the grand liberal project, the fight over health care reform matched a unified opposition mobilized by the right against the wavering, fractured set of wills on the left. Obama, who at certain points of the legislative battle was its primary steward but at others merely a detached observer, finally brought his opponent to an improbable checkmate.

Yet he has earned his signature victory in the shadow of a glaring discord. The new Washington that many believed would come, evinced through their tears and euphoria on that frigid election night in Grant Park, seems to be in tension with the reality of a Washington that is at its most partisan in decades. For Obama’s Washington is one in which racist and homophobic slurs are directed at honorable Congressmen, Congressional offices on both sides of the aisle are vandalized and long-standing and deeply ingrained rules of decorum give way to juvenile exclamations hurled at the President. Obama’s Washington is one in which, if you do not participate in the malicious demonization of the other party, you may very well be forced to leave it. Obama’s Washington is a toxic Washington.

This apparent dissonance between the hallmark promise of Obama’s campaign and the results of his presidency has moved many to deem him a failure. But to cage the last year in these terms is to misinterpret what continues to be the impetus behind his political ideas. He did not, contrary to popular opinion, promise a fundamentally changed Capitol Hill in which Congressmen would hold hands across the aisle and sing Kumbaya. Nor did he promise that carrying out his agenda would suddenly be easy by peppering on a little rhetoric here and a little idealism there. Instead, what Obama promised us was a different manner of governance — a better manner of governance — and in this respect, President Obama has most assuredly delivered.

Barack Obama, like many others today, expresses a removed nostalgia for the Washington of old, of the 1950’s and 60’s, “a time of serious men doing serious work.” It is not a nostalgia for the societal conditions of the day but rather for the nature of the era’s politics, when Senators could sit down, unencumbered by a sensationalist news media or perpetual fundraising demands, and work to bridge divides to serve the people. But Obama construes this Golden Age as dying with the stroke of a pen — Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act. At that point, he tells us in his writings, “the country’s tectonic plates had shifted … politics was [now] … a moral issue as well, subject to moral imperatives and moral absolutes … it was decidedly personal, insinuating itself into every interaction.” Politics became a vehicle for something new, and in the tumultuous 60’s and 70’s, amidst the rise of the counterculture, the fury of the electorate, and economic and social instability, the Democratic Party did not have an answer. Americans had lost their sense of order and control, and Jimmy Carter responded with the Malaise Speech.

President Reagan was able to seize the opportunity. Conjuring up a simple narrative that tapped into America’s frustration, a narrative that promised “those who worked hard, obeyed the law … and loved their country … a sense of a common purpose,” Reagan laid the groundwork for contemporary politics. For the same narrative, albeit in another form, divides us today — indeed, the core issues of the 60’s have never been resolved. Rather they have come to serve as faultlines in today’s democracy.

Obama sees this cementing of ideological positions on nearly every issue, the gridlock and polarity of Washington, as spawning from the embrace of an insincere Manichean struggle by a new generation of leaders. He writes that in contrast to politicians of old, men who were cognizant of the fact that the issues we all faced were difficult, real and ought not be distorted, “In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage.”

Obama saw firsthand the effects of a degraded politics during his time in Chicago, where he worked with communities to increase activism and voter participation. It was a defining experience for Obama, and in the many years leading up to his presidential bid that he spent listening to Americans of all stripes, he would continue to sense the same deeply ingrained cynicism that he felt in Chicago. They were turned off of politics, for the detached zero-sum mentality in Washington was in stark contrast to the visceral battles they waged in their everyday lives. Inspired by their stories, Obama, a man preeminently concerned with the inequities of moral luck, with an unyielding belief that everyone should have a decent shot at life, wanted desperately to steer Washington away from a political conversation that was mired in the past.

When Obama told us that he wanted to transcend the ways of Washington, he meant that he wanted to realign statecraft to engage the modern reality — rather than simply defend New Deal or Great Society programs for their own sake, or offer up patchwork incremental ideas in the name of a false centrism, as his fellow Democrats were doing. He would avoid the temptation to respond to his Republican opposition in kind with a ratcheting up of ideological purism and vilification.

So on that cold November night in Grant Park, what President Obama offered us was a new style of governance. He did not say that he would inherently transform our political system, with its flawed gerrymandering, procedurally paralyzed Senate and insurmountable obstacles to Constitutional amendment, but instead asserted that his statecraft would work perceptively within that system to produce policies that would help Americans in the long run. He promised us he would stop playing the game the Republicans were playing — winning an election for its own sake — and realize the hopes of all those who, as Obama wrote four years ago, “are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be accomplished, to admit the possibility that the other side may have a point.”

With this, Obama embarked on his year long health care struggle. Along the way in the toughest legislative battle in our nation’s political memory, Obama ignored the chronic calls from the left and right to scale back or ditch reform. He was mocked for taking on an issue like comprehensive health care reform when the economy was on the heels of a recession. He was mocked for holding out an open hand to the Republican Party, foolishly attempting to nurture a compromise or adopt their good ideas. He was mocked for his naïveté, for his idealism, for his weakness. “What bad politics!” they said.

But true to the chess grandmaster he is, Obama saw three moves ahead the whole way. He was playing the long game. When others didn’t, he saw the advantages of timing, of outreach, of persistence. He refused to yield to the lure to attack Republicans harshly and only answered a snub with another invitation for input, trusting that Americans would recognize their insincerity. He was patient while his Party wasted time debating over how to save face, accepting the smaller defeats for the grander victory. And he declined opportunities to capture the easy, incremental bill, holding fast to the promise that he would not relinquish his sense of duty, not let go of the big picture, for mere political expedience.

When his advisers came to the Oval Office and intimated political concern, especially during the hostile summer, Obama would reply by reading them the letter he had received that day from a suffering American, urging him to fight on because she had unjustly lost her health insurance. He told his advisers unequivocally that he would not let the reality of American life be left out from the nation’s political conversation.

Indeed, public opinion is slowly but steadily turning in favor of Obama’s reform. As the American people are beginning to realize the true nature of Obama’s pragmatic way of governing, the true meaning of his campaign promises, conservatives are increasingly denouncing the chosen Republican strategy, fearing that health care may instead have been their Waterloo. As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum tellingly lamented on the eve of the House’s passage of health care: “Legislative majorities come and go. This health care bill is forever.”

Issue 21, Submitted 2010-04-07 03:45:19