I’ve toyed with this post for a week or so. Ever since my post suggesting that the PRISM controversy might not be as bad as first thought. That prompted some rebuttal from a couple of voices I respect. One, a fellow blogger who, although I’ve never met him, has some solid and worthy views on the subject. The other, a good friend who is outraged by things such as PRISM and Guantanamo and drone strikes and the like.
I get their frustration. I get their outrage. On some level, I share those emotions. They are idealists. I am one, as well. The three presidential candidates who inspired me the most over the past thirty years are Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo, and Barack Obama. Why? Because as candidates, they were idealists. As speakers, they were poets. They could paint pictures with their words and deliver their speeches with such a rhythm and passion that I could actually believe the shining city on the hill might actually be possible instead of the reality of what actually is.
But, I also get this. Idealists cannot possibly succeed at running a country as complex as the United States in a world that is complex as today’s world. Even if Barack Obama ran as an idealist, he also realized that fundamental truth. I believe the single biggest mistake he ever made was to declare victory on that wonderful November 2008 night before the multitudes in Chicago and the millions watching on TV in a way that ratcheted up the idealism of his campaign rather than dialing it down. Does anybody remember this line from his victory speech back then:
“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”
Change has come to America. I have heard about this promise so many times in the years since. I wish he had never said the words or campaigned so vigorously on the idea of change. The reality is that most candidates do. That’s part of the schtick. But people have held him to that promise at a level unseen for any candidates who ran before him. “He promised change. Where is it?” “Where’s the change the President promised? I don’t see it.” These are the kinds of statements I here all too often, most often from people who didn’t vote for him and probably never would. Yes, I also hear the complaints from those who voted for him. And to all of them I want to say, “Really? You actually expected him to turn back the rising oceans, to cure cancer, end unemployment, etc.? To bring about a new civility in our political discourse? All on his own? Really? Are you that stupid?”
Here’s an example of the type of complaint I here: One of the frequent complainers I hear from is a friend who is a Republican. He never, ever would have voted for Obama and he detests him. We spoke a couple of weeks ago. He accused Obama of lying and flip-flopping and never sticking to a position. When I asked for examples, he had nothing specific. He then moved on to complaining that all Obama does is fly around the country raising money for the Democratic Party. That he just comes out to California to raise money but he doesn’t actually do anything. And that GWB never did that. I pointed out that GWB didn’t come out to California because he wasn’t popular here, but I was willing to bet he did plenty of fundraising in other parts of the country. We just didn’t hear about it living in California. (Here’s a little bit of proof … http://voices.washingtonpost.com/thefix/republican-party/president-bush-fundraiser-in-c.html) My point was that this is something they all do, it’s part of the job. Raise money for the party and the party’s candidates. His response: but what about the change he promised. He was going to change this. Where’s the change? My reply: so, while the other party and candidates are doing this, he’s just supposed to stop? Really? And put the Democratic Party at a disadvantage when the other side isn’t willing to make the same change? Can I repeat myself? Really?
I’m flummoxed by this. Change, change, change. He promised us change!!!!!!
Here’s the deal though. What Barack Obama has done, if nothing else, since his election, is run this country as a pragmatist and a realist. If he had operated as an idealist, he would have demanded single payer health care. And lost just as the Clintons did in the ’90s. If he operated as an idealist, he would have closed down Guantanamo and been decried as weak. If he had operated as an idealist, he would have ended some of these programs we are now learning about rather than allowing them to continue … AS THEY HAVE FOR YEARS AND DECADES PRIOR TO HIS ELECTION. This is the thing that amazes me about the PRISM and Verizon controversy. I first learned about the NSA’s reach back in the 1980s — when they had access to all forms of communication back then. People, it’s a reality. Plus, imagine the outrage if he had ended these programs and six months later we had a terrorist attack on American soil that could have been prevented if he had not done so. Change can only happen incrementally. If he had operated as an idealist, we would have had troops on the ground months ago in Syria to prevent yet another human tragedy. If he had operated as an idealist, we would be in worse shape than we are and many of the successes he has achieved would have never come to be. If he had operated as an idealist, he would have lost in 2012. Just think about the things that would be different with a President Romney. Seriously. Imagine it and tell me Obama should have led as an idealist.
I would like nothing more than to see an idealist with the vision I have run our country. That’s impossible. Better a pragmatist who has the same set of core beliefs, or at least a similar set, than an idealist who could never get anything done. You want an example of a failed idealist as President … Jimmy Carter. One of the most decent, intelligent and wonderful human beings we’ll ever see. But, a horrible President. I’ll take Obama’s pragmatism and reasoned leadership any day.
What prompted me to finally write this was a piece from Andrew Sullivan’s blog today. Not written by Mr. Sullivan. Instead, it is a comment from one of his readers. A Republican reader, who voted for Romney, defended Obama’s decision to provide arms to the Syrian rebels, even though he, the reader, disagreed with the approach!! I think it’s one of the best defenses of Obama I’ve seen. From somebody who doesn’t agree with him. People should read it every time they get upset that Obama doesn’t go all the way towards the decision they want. There’s something to be said for the pragmatic middle. There’s something to be said for seeking incremental improvement. There’s something to be said for compromise and collaboration. Obama’s only real “failing” in this regard is that he is serving as President at a time when the opposition has failed to recognize the value in those ideas.
Is Obama perfect? Of course not. Have I agreed with every decision he has made? No. But I do think he is being held to a different, higher standard than any President before him and I’m tired of it.
You want to know what the alternative is? Republicans like Bobby Jindal, who was willing to state the following in his never-ending desire to be relevant in the 2016 Republican Presidential race:
Because the left wants: The government to explode; to pay everyone; to hire everyone; they believe that money grows on trees; the earth is flat; the industrial age, factory-style government is a cool new thing; debts don’t have to be repaid; people of faith are ignorant and uneducated; unborn babies don’t matter; pornography is fine; traditional marriage is discriminatory; 32 oz. sodas are evil; red meat should be rationed; rich people are evil unless they are from Hollywood or are liberal Democrats; the Israelis are unreasonable; trans-fat must be stopped; kids trapped in failing schools should be patient; wild weather is a new thing; moral standards are passé; government run health care is high quality; the IRS should violate our constitutional rights; reporters should be spied on; Benghazi was handled well; the Second Amendment is outdated; and the First one has some problems too.
Come on, people. What do you want? Adults or petulant teenagers running your country.