Certainly without knowing it, President Obama, in this pre-inaugural picture plucked from the New York Times, manages to pull off a fair impression of the famous classical statue, the Augustus of the Primaporta, matching almost perfectly the second Caesar’s raised arm, held either to indicate a more prosperous future and recovery from Rome’s century of civil wars, or to address his gathered legions moments before a great victory. It depends on who you ask. But in either case, it’s a promise the administration has, by and large, failed to live up to. We can play the blame game another time — I for one continue to blame a Republican party more interested in killing the Democratic resurgence, embodied in Obama, than in running the country — but we’ve had a hand in it too. We haven’t fought when we should have, we’ve fought when we should’ve kept quiet, and overall blanched from the Total War the administration so obviously faced as early as January 21, 2009. Where did we go wrong? To start, let’s rewind to 2008. Maybe it should’ve been Hillary.
Let’s assume — correctly, I think — that there was little policy difference between Hillary and Obama, except possibly as to Iraq. Instead, the choice between Hillary and Obama reduced to a choice of visions for the country. With Hillary, we had a proven fighter, someone who could stand toe-to-toe with the ideological violence of the Bush-era Republican Party. Choosing her would commit us to another eight years of fighting the culture wars, but probably a victory. With Obama, instead, we had the promise of the beginning of a national healing period. Time after time, Obama shrugged off the divisive rhetoric his opponents hurled at him, and always seemed capable to draw us back to our common denominators. Choosing him, it seemed, gave us a fair shot at national unity, consensus politics, and an end to the hyperpartisanship, brinksmanship, and overall reduction of American values that characterized the Bush years.
Like so many, I opted for the latter vision. This was a mistake, but a well-intentioned one. I never expected, nor thought the post-Bush Republican Party capable of, an actual net increase in partisanship. It’s the rare faction that gets handed a crippling loss, and decides the solution is to radicalize. But that’s the opposition we received — as was evident pretty early on — and Obama was not the right President to fight that war. Nor has he truly endeavored to become that type of President. He’s stuck by Bush’s quickly-abandoned goal of being a “uniter, not a divider,” with some exceptions, and if that’s what we need eventually, it’s not what we need now. Though we may never know, a President Hillary Clinton might have understood that.
Like relationships, presidencies are part chemistry, and part timing. Chemistry — here used in the individual sense — our current President has no shortage of. He’s an important, even singular individual, a presidential character if there ever was one. But the Republicans’ dangerous game has functioned to strand him an era not of his own making, nor suited to his strengths, and Obama and the Democrats alike have consistently failed to adapt. America desperately needs a transformative President; but more urgently, we need a soldier to fight the war to get us to a place where we’re ready for a transformation. I suspect the great majority of Americans are already there, but their leaders, at least on one side of the aisle, are not. And until those leaders are absolutely and completely crushed, we’ll never have peace. Octavian had to kill Antony before he could become Augustus.