With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.
— Abraham Lincoln
Barack Obama made very clear in his statements before, during and after the campaign that he did not think any one president could accomplish major changes all alone. He has said on multiple occasions that he doesn't have all the answers. He has said that no party or person has a monopoly on good ideas. He has said that change will not come from himself, but from the unity of millions of people demanding it. He has said change is slow, difficult and, at times, frustrating. At many opportunities, he has made an effort to make sure the people understand their role in his presidency, which is to act as agents of change where he cannot.
It's a persuasive argument. I'm convinced the nature of our times demands much of what the President says. What I am not convinced of is that this state of affairs means our President has to accept unnecessary limits on the breadth and depth of the changes he advocates. Nor am I convinced that this means the President should stop being a public advocate and simply become one of many negotiators around a table. I am not saying the president could be "more progressive." I'm saying the range of possibles could be far greater because of the very reasons that the President outlined above. The President won the election convincingly. His party has been given, by the people, large majorities in Congress. The people are, more than they have been in years, receptive to broad, deep and fundamental shifts in the direction this country is headed. What seems to be holding back all this change is presidential leadership more concerned with process and procedure rather than removing minor obstacles using the mandate of popular will.
In the past, the most effective presidents understood that speaking publicly and rallying people was one of their primary powers. Greater than the ability to veto budgets. Greater than the ability to command armies. Greater than crafting regulations. The quote above from Abraham Lincoln illustrates that Lincoln believed that what won him the office in the first place was what would sustain him as an effective leader. The great presidents were shocking in their claims of power because of this popular support. We know FDR's words about fear in his inaugural speech. What is less known was the explicit threat he made, justified by the power of his popular mandate:
I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.
But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.
Here was FDR, freshly elected, telling Congress that if it does pass his agenda, he's going to demand something akin to the Enabling Act of 1933. He hints at the threat of exercising martial powers as great as those that Lincoln used during a period of armed insurrection! It seems the people were not shocked or appalled by this. Powers that be wailed and cried and repeatedly called FDR a dictator, much as they did Lincoln. But because the people were with him, Congress decided it had better pass the New Deal. Not all of it, of course, but most of it.
Lincoln even managed to change the Constitution more to his liking, very much involving himself in passing the 13th Amendment. These are expansive, wide, broad views of presidential power mainly resting on the ability of these men to shape public opinion with their words. I doubt either of them would have let themselves get hemmed in by something as trivial and mundane as Senate reconciliation procedures or cloture votes. As Lincoln said, with the people behind him, he could not fail.
The times today require the public to become more than passive observers of the political affairs of this nation. On that, President Obama is right. The times also require presidential leadership that expands the range of what is possible and keeps the public engaged. Reformist presidents, at their best, capture the public sentiment and use it to push through the measures that entrenched interests are firmly against. President Obama has been a good legislative leader. He has, to his credit, taken on some very tough and complicated issues. But as a political leader, he has largely withdrawn from engagement.
A reform president cannot be sucked into the sort of thinking that says "the campaign is over." The campaign is never over for a president taking on the status quo. It is certainly never over for those powerful forces fighting against change. The ability to rally the people to his cause is the strongest muscle any President has. Like any muscle, it needs to be exercised to remain strong. There is never a time to "stop playing politics," as the President always begs of his opponents. Democratic government is inherently a political business and any president is inherently a political leader. When making fundamental change, politics must be played—and played to win.
In 2008, we saw the mettle of candidate Barack Obama engaged in political combat. It is time for that Obama to make a comeback and stick around.