Exactly one year ago, although it feels like much longer, America elected Barack Obama as its 44th president. Since then, the national mood has changed in serious ways.
At the time of his election, Obama was seen as a movement leader, sweeping into the White House with a huge electoral majority and what seemed to be a mandate for change. Although his first few months in office were not without controversy, they did little to contradict this image: Obama averted the impending second Great Depression that many were predicting, ended the “Mexico City Gag Rule” and the ban on federal funding of stem-cell research, began the long processes of ending the war in Iraq and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and successfully nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, all while maintaining approval ratings in the low 60s and high 50s.
But as the debate about health care reform came took center-stage this summer, Obama’s ratings slid, Glenn Beck became a national political force and the “Tea Party” protestors gained new legitimacy as part of the political conversation. While Obama’s standing has stabilized since the summer, he has lost, at least for the moment, much of the symbolic force bound up with his election.
It appears that everyone has a different complaint. Progressives are disappointed by Obama’s incrementalism and seeming lack of willingness to fight for his key proposals; in their eyes, their champion has dismounted and wobbled tentatively forward, burdened down by the realities of Washington which he seemed to race past during the campaign. Conservatives are at best condescending towards, and at worst infuriated by, a president they see alternatively as laughably incompetent and supremely dangerous. Unemployment continues to rise, the war in Afghanistan poses an increasingly complex set of issues and depending on who you ask, real change has either come all too slow, or much too quickly.
But the ground-level politics miss the bigger picture of the Obama presidency so far, and risk glossing over a fundamental question posed by the actions of elected and unelected opponents of the Obama administration: What do you do when you lose an election in America?
From the moment that the House Republican caucus voted unanimously against the stimulus package, it was clear that opposition to Obama would take unprecedented forms. This has proven true both in the halls of Congress and in the streets of America. In Congress, the Republican party’s ranks have been significantly diminished, leaving only the party’s hyper-conservative core. It has become a given that 60 votes are required to pass anything through the Senate; what is often not mentioned is that this is because Senate Republicans attempt to filibuster every major piece of legislation, contradicting their frequent (and far more frequently successful) advocacy for “up-and-down votes” when they were in power. Moreover, there appear to be only three or four Republican senators even willing to choose negotiation over reflexive obstruction; one, Arlen Specter, was forced to change parties after it became clear that the conservative Republican primary voters in Pennsylvania would not allow his renomination as a consequence.
While official partisanship has taken an extreme form, it is not new to Washington. What is new, and more troubling, is the extremity of citizen reactions to Obama. While some Democrats complained bitterly about George W. Bush’s illegitimacy, a far larger and more vocal group of conservatives have taken to the streets, protesting an image of Obama that has little basis in reality. The “Teabaggers” have adopted the rhetoric of revolution, and challenge the fundamental democratic principle that America decides its course through elections — that the losing side is bound by the virtue of its citizenship and participation in the process to go along with the decision of the majority, at least until it comes time to vote again. While I did not support President Bush at the ballot box or the kitchen table, he was my president all the same. The teabaggers, birthers, deathers and others do not seem to feel the same way about Obama. In the most extreme acts of protest, several people have been seen with exposed firearms outside of presidential events. The Secret Service says it is literally being overwhelmed by the number of death threats against the president.
It is not the Republican Party’s fault that this fringe has become its public face. They are loud and sensationalist, and the media loves conflict. Moreover, with the recent unpopularity of Republican ideas, the party must take votes where it can get them.
But playing to this portion of the base is dangerous. Last weekend, we saw the Republican candidate effectively driven out of the race in New York’s 23rd congressional district by an insurgent third party campaign, leading to Rush Limbaugh’s comment (not repudiated by the Conservative Party candidate) that the socially liberal Republican nominee was “guilty of bestiality. She has screwed every RINO (Republican in name only) in the country.”
In the wake of this purge, we should all ask: In a country unlikely to abandon the two-party system, what good does partisan purity serve? At what cost to representative government will we demand ideological uniformity among the leaders of an ideologically diverse nation?
While Obama seemed at first to be the harbinger of a new American civility, if not unity, in the wake of the Bush years, we the people have allowed a promising symbol of national reconciliation to be battered and tarnished. The rhetoric of a campaign cannot be enacted in governance, but the sensibility can; yet it is hard to remember the sense of hope that once surrounded Barack Obama.
Last year’s election was historic, but it now falls to us to decide what it meant. Will the Obama presidency be remembered as an important chapter in America’s pendular history of progressive change and conservative restoration, or will it be remembered as the moment that the terms of our democratic experiment were changed? Can the government continue to function as it was framed? Is the American citizenry still able to shoulder the responsibilities of democratic choice, and the pain of losses democratically decided?
One year into the Obama presidency, we need to realize the seriousness of this moment. Health care reform is crucial, but it is not fundamental to our American identity. Climate change is a looming disaster, but the debate surrounding it is not rooted in our historical tradition. The hysteria that has threatened to derail Obama, however, cannot be ignored. Last year, the American people elected Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Those who can’t seem to stomach his Presidency only have to wait three more years to vote for their own little bit of hope and change.
Ilan Ben-Meir is a sophomore in Trumbull College.