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?