The Untransformational President

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Tomasky

Barack Obama hoped to elevate American politics. Instead, our politics may destroy his presidency.

Why isn't Barack Obama tougher? During the week that he signed a debt deal in which the Republicans took him to the cleaners, markets tanked, and U.S. debt got hit with a historic and disastrous downgrade, several answers were bruited. It's political: he's in thrall to polls telling him that accommodation is what independent voters want. It's ideological: he's in fact (say some liberals) an aggressive moderate who's perfectly fine with massive spending cuts. It's psychological or biological: he just doesn't have the tough-guy gene.

All these factors are present to varying degrees. But let me offer a different explanation--one that's a little deeper. The problem rests in the realm of political philosophy. Obama has beliefs about democratic governance, and about himself as president, that dictate his behavior in battles like the debt-ceiling brawl. These beliefs were a big part of what made him so inspirational to so many people before he won the 2008 election, but they have served him--and his voters, and the country--poorly since he took office, and especially since the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.

Obama believes in civic virtue, and in the idea that in a democracy it's the duty of responsible leaders to reason together on behalf of something they all agree to call the common good. The fancy name for this theory of government in political-philosophy circles is civic republicanism: the "civic" part refers to action taken in the public sphere, while "republican" (a small-r republican and a big-R Republican are very different animals) signals a concern with tyrannical majorities and a faith that reasoned debate will produce a balanced result.

You might be laughing already, but the concept has played a crucially important role in American history. Thomas Jefferson cherished and advanced civic-republican beliefs, as did James Madison. Not bad: the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the thinker who produced some of the most important Federalist Papers written in defense of the U.S. Constitution of 1787. In the early 19th century, these ideas were still alive enough that we had a brief period of more or less civic-republican government under James Monroe. Dubbed the "Era of Good Feelings" by journalist Benjamin Russell in 1817, it began after the War of 1812 and the collapse of the Federalist Party. During this period, President Monroe made many patronage appointments without regard to political loyalty, for example.

A return to that kind of civic culture is what Obama hoped to bring about--all that talk about transforming politics. And that vision was key to his appeal during, and before, the campaign. The most famous sentence in Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention speech--"there's not a liberal America and a conservative America, there's the United States of America"--is a textbook civic-republican sentiment. After the thuggish, with-us-or-against-us posture of the Bush administration, it was something millions of Americans wanted to hear, and believe in.

Well. This many years later, it's pretty clear that Barack Obama isn't going to transcend liberal America and conservative America. …