The turning point
Barack Obama entered office five years ago possessed of solid majorities in the House and Senate, and facing a national crisis that everyone had to acknowledge. But from the beginning, he chased an impossible dream: the restoration of a bipartisan spirit in Washington. He never had the slightest success, but he has not, as we shall see, given up the dream yet. And this was the key to the mistake he has made again and again. This quintessentially political young man, who had parlayed his considerable assets into fame, fortune, and high office at every stage of his career, based his proposals on what could easily be passed, rather than upon what the country might in the long run really need. Even if the stimulus was a much as he could get, he could have put more of it into infrastructure spending and less of it into tax cuts designed (hopelessly) to draw Republican support. He appointed an entirely centrist economic team, one that saw nothing fundamentally wrong with our finance-dominated economy. He did not realize that the whole future of his Presidency depended on improving the lot of the bulk of the American people by the time of the 2010 elections--the feat which Franklin Roosevelt accomplished in 1933-4. And he decided after the stimulus to put all his remaining capital into health care reform, even though it would be years before it had any measurable effect. That reform, too, was written so as not to offend any powerful interests, on the assumption that we could fix the real problems we face without offending them.
To be sure, even in his first two years Obama had much less to work with than it seemed. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are in thrall to financial interests. Democrats are very weak at the state level in much of the country. Nearly 35 years of constant anti-government, free market rhetoric have left the vision of the middle of the century behind. To make government effective again Obama had to revive them, and this he has never really tried to do. We will never know whether any one else could have, but it is worth noting that Obama brought many of the same people back into government that Hillary Clinton would have.
Despite Obama's re-election victory, the Republicans have been driving the national agenda since 2011. Their debt-limit brinkmanship forced Obama into the sequester, again on the absolutely mad assumption that today's Republican Party would shrink from actually implementing the cuts involved. In fact their only regret, as they see the federal government crippled and the country threatened with a new recession as a result, is that they did not go further. Destroy the government and the economy and blame the Democrats has been their motto for a long time, and they were not going to abandon it for him. The same drama is playing out in many states, although California is now back on a more responsible track. I was shocked that Obama actually told a New York fundraiser that he thought his victory last November would "break the fever" among the Republicans and make them start working with him. They will never work with him. They want to destroy him and, more importantly, everything he stands for.
I must admit that I thought Obama's decision to make a new stand on gun control might make political sense. His own Generation X voted for him in the last election, but his response to the school shooting might well appeal to that generation's hyperprotective parents and thus change the political calculus for some Republicans. Clearly, however, I was wrong. The NRA brushed the challenge aside and the House of Representatives wasn't even forced to vote on what was, once again, a very moderate bill. Even before the events of the past week I was very doubtful that Obama would get substantial immigration reform. Yes, the Republicans are losing the Hispanic vote over this issue, but they might lose it even worse if the President actually gave millions of Hispanics a path to citizenship. The mantra remains what it has been since Newt Gingrich: don't let a Democratic President accomplish anything meaningful if you can help it, because that will once again show that government can solve problems. By making it ineffective, we can kill public faith in it.
And now, three "scandals" have given the Republicans a new life. None of them is really very significant. The Benghazi accusations are made almost entirely of whole cloth. The subpoena for AP records is a troubling reminder that this is the hardest Administration on leaks in history, and it has alienated much of the Democratic base. The IRS scandal is a perfect reminder of Talleyrand's famous words to Napoleon: "Sire, it's worse than a crime, it's a blunder." It will re-mobilize the Republican base as nothing else could, and the Republicans, aided by the entire media, will drag it out for months and months, just as they did Whitewater. There is already considerable talk in the House about another impeachment of the President. Don't rule it out.
Another crisis is looming over health care. Republicans constantly declare that many businesses will cut their workers back to part-time status so as not to have to buy insurance for them--and that might well turn out to be true. The implementation of the reform may be a public relations disaster.
The United States has been in a second civil war since the election of Bill Clinton. The Republicans are winning perhaps it was because it was their historical turn--a subject for another day--but surely because they are the only side that has really been fighting. Clinton and Obama have been status quo Presidents, offering very little that was new and almost nothing that appeared to the mass of the American people to make their lives better. Again and again they have bee willing to compromise, while the Republicans never do. And the growth of Republican power has indeed reduced the federal government to ineffectiveness on many levels. A Democratic victory in 2016 is anything but assured. A recent study--and not a right-wing one--argued that only the black turnout won the election for Obama last time, and the next Democratic candidate will not be black. Nor can we be sure that Hispanics will continue to vote Democratic if the state of the country continues to deteriorate.
Obama, it seems to me, could do the country some good by talking, at every opportunity, about the economic steps the country really needs: more spending, not less; much higher taxes on the wealthy; a reduction of the influence of the financial sector; and better public services. The only thing he can do now is to position the Democrats for the moment when it becomes clear that things are getting worse again. Instead, he is more likely to look for a "grand bargain" that will implicate him and his party in a new series of disasters. Meanwhile, the younger generations are completely losing faith in politics. In my last full-time college class last week, I mentioned that Kennedy had inspired much of my generation, and Reagan had inspired Generation X. "Has Obama inspired you?" I asked the class, which was certainly composed mainly of liberals. A long silence followed. "Well, maybe until he was elected," one young man replied. That, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of Barack Obama--and of the present-day United States.