A Year of Anomie or Achievement? in the Past, Our Political Leaders Could Wage War on Each Other and Still Get Things Done

By Shribman, David M | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 12, 2014 | Go to article overview

A Year of Anomie or Achievement? in the Past, Our Political Leaders Could Wage War on Each Other and Still Get Things Done


Shribman, David M, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


New year, new challenges. These challenges come for a political system that is in disrepute, in a world that is in upheaval, in a society that is undergoing fast and fundamental change. The year is only a dozen days old and already changes are sweeping through Washington, the Middle East and Russia.

And yet we know that the changing of the calendar year is an artificial event, driven by our need for order, by our impulse to organize events and by our notion, probably faulty, that the seasons of nature are in a cosmic, or perhaps a divine, alignment with our earthly concerns.

For all the folly of doing so, still we attach outsized meaning to the changing of the calendar and to the labels we affix to it. The four digits "1914," which were employed for 365 days a century ago, are heavy with one meaning alone. So are the digits "1939."

So what are the digits "2014" destined to mean?

It is, of course, impossible to say, though we do know that the forces that will produce the answer are already well in train, and that in looking back upon 2014 we will see the roots of its meaning in a political crisis that began years earlier, or in a movement that started with an unnoticed slight in a place faraway, or in the inspired imagination of a lone innovator in a remote garage.

Nonetheless, there are collision points we can foresee even in the middle of 2014's first month, tensions that must be addressed, crises that must be confronted, barriers that must be breached. Here are some of them:

. The president's mysterious persona.

Barack Obama came to the White House promising a new beginning, beyond party and partisanship, and yet his five years have been mired in a partisanship that has no equal in modern times.

But his biggest problem involves promises breached and promise unrealized. He promised to work with his rivals and yet rammed through his biggest social program without a single Republican vote, a symbol of his approach to governing.

He showed unbounded promise as a communicator; indeed in the 2008 campaign he seemed like the Great Communicator 2.0, with an uncanny and unequaled intuitive ability to read the public, to speak for the public and to lead the public. And yet the public man has disappointed even his most fervent backers.

Americans very likely would vote again for the man who ran against John McCain in November 2008. They very likely would not vote again for the man who has occupied the White House since January 2009.

. The political paralysis on Capitol Hill.

In 1964, a half-century ago, the Senate was hung up for more than two months in the longest, most vicious filibuster in American history - and yet in the end it passed the Civil Rights Act that transformed the United States. But amid that political rancor, Congress also passed a landmark mass transit act that would change the face of urban America, an economic opportunity bill that would launch the War on Poverty, a wilderness bill that protected 9.1 million acres of natural beauty. That last piece of legislation required 60 drafts, and yet the lawmakers came to final agreement, and the country was better for it. …

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