Because of core contradictions in his impassioned appeals, President Obama has so far enjoyed only limited success with his efforts to mobilize his dispirited base for the November elections. He promises to satisfy a thwarted longing for change at the same time that he boasts of a glowing record of two years of achievement. In the process, he ignores the inconvenient truth that his party has controlled both houses of Congress since the beginning of 2007 and held the White House since 2009.
“Let’s show Washington one more time, change doesn’t come from the top,” he told an eager audience at the University of Wisconsin in the first of a series of rallies meant to recapture the magic of his Presidential campaign. “Change happens because of you! Change happens because of you! Change happens because of you!”
Does this mean that his one-time supporters should blame themselves rather than the President and his allies for the disappointments of the last two years?
President Obama’s plea to “keep believing that change is possible” might seem appropriate from an insurgent candidate or activist outsider long excluded from the corridors of power, but it sounds bizarre coming from the a chief executive who not only commands huge Congressional majorities but who has successfully implemented most key elements of his announced agenda. He can’t credibly pose as protester rather than president.
“In every instance, progress took time,” he intoned in Wisconsin. “In every instance, progress took sacrifice. Progress took faith. You know, the slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs, they weren't sure when slavery would end but they understood it was going to end. When women were out there marching for the right to vote, they weren't sure when it was going to happen but they kept on going. When workers were organizing for the right to organize and were being intimidated, they weren't sure when change was going to come but they knew it was going to come. And I am telling you, Wisconsin, we are bringing about change and progress is going to come -- but you've got to stick with me.”
And what, exactly, is the “change and progress” that he promises?
In his three examples of past triumphs – the abolition of slavery, the establishment of women’s suffrage, and the recognition of organizing rights for laborers –the victims of injustice focused on very specific demands ultimately granted by the Thirteenth Amendment, the Nineteenth Amendment, and the Wagner Labor Relations Act, respectively.
What legislative remedies could fulfill the present yearnings of those huddled, oppressed masses (at elite universities and elsewhere) who currently gather around campfires, singing freedom songs? Will the approval of new stimulus spending, or legislation demanding more detailed disclosure of sponsorship on issues ads on TV, satisfy today’s appetite for change? Would a gradual return to the unemployment rate of 7.8% that greeted Obama when he took over the White House satisfy the idealistic demand for progress?
In his campaign appearances, President Obama says little about a fresh agenda for the next two years, or a new direction for the country, and warns instead against the change in course those nasty Republicans propose. This anomaly demonstrates the extent to which conservatives have seized the momentum in national debate, with fevered discussion over potential moves to the right and almost no consideration of further lurches to the left.
In part, this reflects an obvious reality: even if the president and his Democratic allies succeed in maintaining control of both House and Senate, the Republicans most certainly will increase their numbers. How could anyone seriously expect Obama to effectuate more sweeping changes than he has achieved so far when he faces smaller Congressional majorities (at best)? Why should progressives count on the president to bring about bold, expensive new reforms that he failed to achieve when levels of debt and deficit spending were sharply lower, and his personal popularity was vastly higher?
Nevertheless, President Obama can’t resist the grandiose rhetorical flourish: “You can’t lose heart,” he assures his followers to conclude his current recent rallies. “Change is going to come. Change is going to come for this generation -- if we work for it, if we fight for it, if we believe in it.”
The vague, unfocused nature of such pledges worked well for Barack Obama as a candidate offering a refreshing alternative to the frustrations of the Bush administration. But two years later, overwhelming majorities believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction and Obama’s energetic campaigning can’t conceal the fact that the president played the commanding role in setting the country on its current course.