President Obama has brought change to Washington, but the change he has brought isn't about changing America. America is pretty much the same place it was before he arrived. His change was and still is about changing the political process. He's been running a long time on this theme. He's always made it clear he wanted to "make Washington work." By work, he means passing laws. By any reasonable measure, he's certainly signed a lot of laws these last two years, including a couple of big ones. I certainly do not believe the president is in any way stupid or a charlatan. Nor do I believe he is weak. At least not in the "weak-willed" sense of the word. The president is, in my view, a non-ideological institutionalist. He isn't for or against anything in particular.
You'll hear him often make stirring comments about the goodness of process. "We'll have a debate" he'll say, as if this were a rallying cry. "Both parties have good ideas," he'll say, as if it were true. It seems to me that the outcome of the process isn't something he has a vested interest in ensuring. He says, often in fact, that "all options are on the table" or "I'm willing to listen to anybody." Once he told the media that he had successfully convinced Pentagon officials of his DADT position. As if they were not under his command! It doesn't matter to him what the results of the debate are, so long as there is one. He doesn't see himself as an advocate, but an arbitrator. The worst thing for President Obama to deal with is not a bad outcome, but a bad process. It is a mistake to believe that the president doesn't have a preferred outcome and that it isn't often progressive. He does, but he isn't willing to disrupt the process over it with political fights. He believes that whatever a calm, orderly process produces is what is best, even if he disagrees with the results. Even if it occurs in backrooms. Perhaps this is why so many Democrats are scratching their heads trying to figure out what the president believes. What his motives are. What his politics are.
Plain and simple: technique over substance. The president isn't in favor of discrimination against LGBT members of the military. He just wont disturb the chain of command or legal machinery over it. He favored the public option, but he wont get tied up into a filibuster over it. He wanted a bigger stimulus too, but wasn't about to engage in a political fight for it. On issue after issue, the president more often agrees with Democrats than not. The only difference is that he isn't willing to have a big fight over any of it. When it comes to the actual doing of the things he is for, he becomes an impartial observer mediating negotiations. Otherwise, he believes he won't get things done. It doesn't so much matter what those things are, so long as they are happening.
The problem with this rudderless, impartial approach to government is that it doesn't leave much in it's wake. I always come back to this Lincoln quote:
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.
Public policy isn't simply a matter sorted out by decision trees and data. What a person believes in matters. Who and what they are fighting for matters even more. The change that we need is not merely a statutory matter to be negotiated in back rooms. The change we need is a reordering of our core beliefs. Barack Obama frequently echoed in his campaign the great social movements of this country's history, defining his time as one that would be equal in scope. He made a generational calling for a new way forward. The president used to say on the campaign trail, "I am my brothers keeper, I am my sisters keeper." We need our public values to change into that and then the statutes will follow. My sincere hope was that Barack Obama would use his powerful oratory combined with the presidential bully pulpit to advocate for those values, to truly change the public sentiment away from the "I got mine" selfishness of Reaganism. To make the case, publicly and persuasively, that activist government is good for ordinary people. That is why I supported him so strongly. Unfortunately, all we've seen so far is a mediator and legislative leader, dispassionately making the sausage that is so easily eaten up and discarded when the political winds change. I don't want a leader who just changes statutes, but one who changes minds.
Unfortunately, the "no dog in the fight" approach has now come to a defining moment, putting the president in the terrible position of having to campaign for things he had been against. This president took a strident, public, clear stand against the Bush tax cuts. Maybe his previous stance was based on the polls of the matter and not any particular bias towards the working man. But his penchant for process over politics now has him endorsing the Bush tax cuts if that is the only way to get anything done. Even if it means campaigning for them with fear tactics. To make matters worse, he says he's going to run against the Bush tax cuts, again, two years from now. For him, I'm sure it is merely a technical matter with a nuanced explanation. For me, it is a clear statement about his values. He will definitely have to return to this issue, but unfortunately it will be without any moral credibility.
I think we've seen enough of President Obama's leadership style to accept that this is all we are going to get. A focus on technique and legislative minutia. Backroom deals. Limited in overall scope and ambition. Sometimes supporting policies we are against. Impartial, non-ideological, non-confrontational advocacy in favor of...things. Getting done.