The Limited Ambitions Of Obama 2012


Jeffrey Toobin hits on something that’s been on my mind lately too — the continuing refusal of the White House to offer a proactive vision of a second Obama Administration:

In 2009, Obama arrived in the White House accompanied by solid Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, so his big plans—say, on health care—had a realistic chance of coming to fruition. His majority has disappeared in the House and shrunk in the Senate, and it seems a virtual certainty that the Democratic heights of those first two years are out of reach for the foreseeable future. In this way, then, Obama’s refusal to lay out visionary ideas amounts to a recognition of political reality. If he can’t push through a legislative agenda, the theory appears to go, then what’s the point of proposing one?

I think it was sometime around March of 2011 when I first realized that the best case scenario for American politics over the next 5 or so years was utter stasis. Polarization and the filibuster being what they are, a President without decisive majorities in both chambers of Congress was a President who could only veto or tinker. Considering how unlikely it was (and remains) that the Democrats could reverse 2010’s shellacking so soon, I was led to an unpleasant conclusion: to a significant degree, the Obama Presidency was most likely already over.

Brief moments representing opportunities for change, punctuating long periods of little or no truly noteworthy action; that’s the norm for American politics. Even though Roosevelt was President for nearly 13 years, for example, a glance at his record shows most of his signature accomplishments came early. He spent a good many of those dozen years protecting the gains he’d made (and, of course, readying for, then presiding over, the war). In other words, there’s a reason why the media places so much emphasis on a newly elected President’s first 100 days.

But remembering the excitement and ambition that characterized the beginning of the Obama Era, it’s hard to find comfort in this history. C’est la vie, I know; but as Andrew Sullivan wrote today, Obama “once offered something more.”

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.


  1. I think you get it, but need to take it a little further.

    I don’t know if you read the post I did on Corn’s book (kind of at your twitter request!), but I’ll try to summarize an alternative “Theory of O” or way of looking at it here: As your references to Roosevelt already imply, getting to a theory of political “transformation” of the sort Obama invited his followed to believe in, including a full accounting of the risks and the many bad alternatives, would take us far beyond the conceptual confines of two presidential terms and of domestic politics. Much more could be said on this subject, but look at “the Reagan Era” from the perspective of a committed ideological conservative – how little was changed in the way we do things, as opposed to how we talk about them. His greatest conservative achievement might have been entrenching the resistance to everything you’d like to see from O – though there are other factors involved beyond RWR’s presidency. If, on the other hand, Obama’s presidency is viewed as successful, if he manages to initiate a process of re-alignment, if major initiatives undertaken during his presidency are seen to have re-shaped assumptions about the politically possible and desirable, then maybe after a generation has passed it will be possible for you to look back on his presidency as authentically transformational, and worthy of your former excitement over it.

    But like I said I think you already get this – so why not accept it and work from there?

  2. Personally, I think you’re looking to much to legislative accomplishments to make a determination on the presidency.
    Look at the various departments and agencies of the executive.
    The NLRB has definitely been a victory for Obama.

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