Columns » John Brummett

Transformative? Or Clinton-Lite?



A year after his historic election, Barack Obama stands revealed as something less than the transformative president he aspired and was intermittently projected to be.

It would be premature and unkind to say that, instead, he's Bill Clinton with bigger problems and more spending, with the same health care mess, but without the girlfriend.

That it's premature is obvious. You can't judge a president after a few months, though we can't help but try. Obama scoffed at the notion the other day in a speech in New Orleans, saying, hey, it's been nine months and yet world hunger persists.

The unkindness is to Clinton. At this point in his presidency, he'd done two big things — a budget with a tax increase on high incomes that would provide the foundation for surpluses and, by November of 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Obama has passed a much larger and more dramatic economic package. Otherwise, he's stymied on a second thing, either reforming health care or reforming energy policy.

So while we must be careful not to read too much into Tuesday's few elections, there was a stark contrast last week that was impossible to ignore.

HBO, the cable television network, unveiled an insider documentary about Obama's campaign a year ago, replete with teary-eyed African-Americans and starry-eyed young people revealing their inspiration by Obama as they chanted “yes, we can.”

It seems now almost an orgy of pitiable naivete, because, actually, it seems that, no, we can't.

In Virginia, where Obama won a dramatic victory last November, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate got creamed. In New Jersey, a Democratic state where Obama campaigned three times for incumbent Democratic governor John Corzine, the Republican challenger won decisively.

A transformative leader ought to able to leave some kind of residual movement a few months after his election, don't you think? After all, to transform politically is to effect changes extending beyond one's self.

Yet Virginia reverted to old form, largely because Obama wasn't on the ballot bringing new voters to the polls. New Jersey, about as blue a state as we have, rebuffed this would-be transformer more directly. It might not have been personal. It might have had little to do with Obama. But it showed nonetheless that there's not a whole lot of transforming going on.

Obama looks too much like a politician as usual, temporizing and modulating and getting caught up in the same old partisan dysfunction.

It may be that American politics remains simply as basic as James Carville put it in 1992 when he said it's all about “the economy, stupid.”

It may be that the best assessment of modern American politics came in 2000 when, confronted with nondescript candidates and no burning issues, the American voters fought to a tie.

And it's further beginning to appear that the tie gets broken only by the multi-directional anger of independent voters, accruing to the benefit of the party most recently losing. The cycle is evident: Throw out one set of rascals. Then throw out the replacement rascals the next time.

Today's independents tend to be results-oriented, impatient and disdainful. So the nation hangs on to a seesaw they control.

These independent voters were mad in 2008 about the failed economy. They were mad in 2009 — in Virginia and New Jersey, at least — about the exploding deficit and the uncertainty of the economy.

They don't like what they're getting. They lack any sustaining philosophy about what we ought to be doing. So they react only to what they don't like.

Alas, there's a force in America greater right now than any uplifting chant or soaring oratory or noble message or charismatic personality. It's discontent. And our winter for it seems to have settled in for a while.


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