The Future Past

When the history of the last few years is written, I doubt we’ll recognize it. Oh, the seminal events will all be there, but so much of the flavor depends on how it all turns out, that from where we’re sitting it’s almost impossible to judge who will be the hero, and who the villain, although we can take our guesses. Either President Obama is the visionary who pushed through tough legislation when it was needed, or the villain who failed to avert disaster. I doubt it’ll be the latter. At the worst, I think we may yet see him as an idealist whose attempts to forge unity were squandered on a nation geared for war, not peace, who pushed too hard on some points, but not hard enough on others: the right man, for the wrong moment.

In the New York Times Magazine from this past weekend, we find some support for this guess: a President confident in his ideas, but not in how they were sold. It may be time to admit that we’ve been missing that component of leadership.

A nation in crisis is a curious thing. The rules change: forcefulness, action, and the appearance of action are almost as important as results, and more important than wide, momentary popularity. FDR realized this; as did the Roman ruler, Augustus, who had the bizarre quality of being able to mold himself into just what Rome needed, whenever it needed it — from man of action, to consensus builder*, in a matter of years. In President Obama, we’ve found a restorative consensus-builder, and someone for the country to rally around, given a chance. But we’ve never been afforded that chance. Instead, we’ve needed (and gone largely without) a leader who can force the public to accept uncomfortable truths. Proper leadership wouldn’t run from (e.g.) the TARP legacy: it would embrace it as a troublesome premise that nonetheless was just what we needed at the time.

For lack of a broad vision, and the clarity of purpose to advocate it to the exclusion of other options, we’ve ceded enough ground to let our opponents craft inane, irrelevant, counterfactual, bizarre narratives about everything from “fiscal restraint” to “limited government”: fine ideas, but not when used as points of dogma, rather than means to an end (for the former) and delicate balances not subject to simplification (for the latter). When we lose, big, next month, this will be why. The only good news is, if that’s where we’re headed, there’s still time to change. Again. Let Bartlet be Bartlet?



  1. The biggest problem I have seen with liberals in the last 10 years is that when they act like liberals and pursue liberal policies, they are scared to stand by them. With no confidence in themselves how can they expect he public to be confident in them?

    1. So then the question is: Pursue truly liberal policies and ask the public to be patient to see if they work or water them down in an effort to gain the approval of the Center and get a lousy product. I support the former approach and it’s why I think the the GOP keeps regaining power. The public likes a feeling of confidence.

    2. You make these assumptions of the people liking conservatives/Republican policies Mike, but the polls don’t necessarily show that and the reasoning is not that clear cut.

      From a recent Slate article:

      “Gallup tells us that 71 percent of all Americans blame Republican policies for the bad economy, while only 48 percent blame the Obama administration.”

      “Americans dislike congressional Republicans more than congressional Democrats. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll shows that while disapproval of congressional Democrats stands at 61 percent, disapproval of congressional Republicans stands at 67 percent.”

      The general public is concerned about the economy more than anything else. Much more than any so called liberal policies. Most people talking about the current political climate points to the economic conditions, not specific policies, to describe current anti-incumbent sentiments.

      1. You mis-understood my point. What the public likes is conviction. Republicans talk like they are confident in their policies. With liberals you always feel like they propose policies and are knocking on wood beneath their podium because they aren’t really sure.

        There’s an old phrase, “It’s better to be wrong than wishy-washy.” I think that’s how the public feels about political discourse.

        1. Sadly, as a card carrying liberal I have to agree with Mike. Nothing burns me more then when my party of record proposes grand stuff – like a public option, and then runs away from it quickly because it might cause trouble of some kind. I’ve been saying fo ryears that Democrats (Who are now a center to center-left party and thus not really liberals anymore) need to stop trying to look like Republicans.

          And Republicans ARE confident intheir policies – too bad their economics have been shown by history to be shallow at best, and disasterous at worst.

          1. It’s my opinion Phillip that 99% of the policies that both sides propose fall under the, “…shallow at best, and disasterous at worst,” category. The older I get the more in favor of inaction I am on most fronts. I love the idea of big, bold poposals WPA-style but we just lack the political ability to get them done anymore.

            Goldberg had a good piece on this the other day:


            “It took 410 days to build the Empire State Building, four years to erect the Golden Gate Bridge. The Pentagon took a year and a half, the Alaska Highway just nine months. These days it takes longer to build an overpass.

            For instance, planning for Boston’s “Big Dig” officially began in the early 1980s with a budget of $2.6 billion, but ground wasn’t broken until 1991 and the last ramp wasn’t opened until 2006. The final estimated cost: $22 billion. According to the Boston Globe, it won’t be paid off until 2038.

            Meanwhile, the “race” to rebuild the World Trade Center as some kind of remorse theme park approaches its second decade.

            And across the harbor from Ground Zero, Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has earned scorn for thinking that a proposed underwater rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey might be too pricey. Under discussion for decades, it was originally projected to cost $5 billion. Estimates are now $9 billion and rising.

            Christie still might reverse course if he can cut a better deal for his state. But the underlying fact remains the same: This country can’t build stuff the way it used to. It’s taken President Obama nearly two years and billions of dollars in misspent stimulus money to discover there really is “no such thing as shovel-ready jobs” when it comes to public works.

            In fairness, Uncle Sam’s sloth and bloat is not all bad news. Americans used to tolerate a much higher level of workplace mortality for such projects.

            And to be sure, not all environmental regulations are overkill. One reason we couldn’t build a Hoover Dam today is that such projects do incredible violence to the natural environment. (I’m always amused by the stylish environmentalism of many Southern Californians who don’t realize that Mother Nature intended for SoCal to be a desert where snakes outnumber hybrid cars.)”

      2. My point still stands.

        Maybe I’m cynical, but I don’t believe the public is nuanced enough in policy to be anything but, “economy bad, incumbents bad”, when it comes to the present. I mean, as the polls seem to suggest, people don’t necessarily favor Republican economic policies, since they still blame them for the current problems.

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