Opinion Obama Finds His Stride
Barack Obama has stepped off his pedestal and started governing with a mixture of idealism and pragmatism. It has lost a preacher, but the bitterly divided country has plenty of those. Finally, 14 months into his term, America has the reform-minded president it needs.
Fourteen months after Barack Obama's inauguration, Americans finally have a president. They have lost St. Barack, their world preacher.
His ascent was dazzling and that was part of the problem. His rise was as unreal as the arrival of a savior, it was naïve but then Obama had waged a naïve election campaign: We can change, I will give you a government that heals.
That approach quickly failed, because the real world is never naïve.
Now the left in America says Obama has betrayed their and his own ideals, has been too compromising and too soft, a professor in the White House, a powerless man, a black Jimmy Carter. The right says he has betrayed American principles and regards him as a communist, a waster of taxpayers' money. That has weakened him. The Israeli government is getting ready to ignore the troublesome president until he has been voted out of office, Afghan President Hamid Karzai allows his guest of honor -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- to rail against America while US soldiers protect Kabul. But that too is likely to pass: The real world isn't a caricature.
These are the weeks of Obama's comeback. Following his apparition and crucifixion, we're experiencing a process of secularization. The White House is re-adjusting and finding its balance. Health care reform, finally passed, looks set to provide 32 million citizens with health insurance and represents a victory for Obama over the Washington establishment that has been marred by congressional paralysis for years.
Obama continued his drive to fill important posts by presidential decree, and then came the breakthrough in disarmament talks with Russia, then he flew to Karzai. We're seeing a belated beginning for him.
An Aggressive, Divided Country
It's well known that there are two Americas. Franklin D. Roosevelt was hated by millions, Kennedy was hated by the right, Nixon by the left, Clinton by the right, Bush by the left. The US is an aggressive country. Sometimes that makes it dynamic, sometimes destructive.
The differences between Americans and Europeans are greater than many Europeans think. To conservative Americans, the European consensus that a strong government must help the weak is an encroachment on liberty. For the American right, "solidarity" and "social" are provocative words.
Obama tried to change this climate by preaching about duty and responsibility, and achieved the opposite: paranoia. Conspiracy theories and exaggeration swirled around the talk shows. Then there was the Tea Party movement, and all the warnings about immigrants, big city dwellers, intellectuals, climate researchers, anti-gun campaigners, politicians, women and African Americans -- everyone who threatens basic American values.
The US is a complicated country undergoing a wave of demographic change that will make it even more complicated. In elections to come, white America will find it virtually impossible to beat African Americans and Hispanic immigrants if those two blocks join forces. The white middle class fears this change and is jumpy. Senators are spat at, Sarah Palin advises citizens to "reload," militias are arming themselves. The New York Times spoke of a "small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht."
The depth of the abyss is unprecedented, and it's also unprecedented that America's right no longer regards Obama as its president. "This black guy's your president" -- such sentences are new.
Of course it's possible to govern in such a climate, but it won't be smooth sailing. One of Obama's biggest mistakes has been to believe in his messianic vision of a presidency that transcends party lines. He's now governing with passion, strategically and with a cool head.
Democracy doesn't require harmony, it doesn't even require consensus, all it needs is a majority. Obama has stepped off his pedestal and it looks as though he plans to go on implementing reforms in the almost three years he has left. Left of the center, with a little idealism and a dose of pragmatism if necessary.
The country needs a reforming president, it already has enough preachers. A lot has been lost in the abyss between the two Americas.