This week, the president found himself in a familiar spot — starring in a morality play of his own making.
At every point in his life as he tells it, Obama has been a noble soul making his way through an ignoble world. He gave up the prospect of a high-paying job following college to work as a community organizer, rejected the top law firms to become a civil rights lawyer, and rose in the state senate as a reformer in the corrupt swamp of Illinois politics.
His campaign for the presidency was no different. He wasn’t just running against the record of George W. Bush — every Democratic candidate was at the time — but against the cynicism and divisiveness of the political process. In that sense, his inexperience wasn’t a problem, but evidence of his purity.
“They say I need to be seasoned; they say I need to be stewed,” he was fond of saying in his early stump speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire. “They say, ‘We need to boil all the hope out of him — like us — and then he’ll be ready.’”
Obama found perfect foils in Hillary Clinton and John McCain, both representatives of the old style of politics, both infected by Washington, both too consumed with tactics and process to appreciate what could be possible with just a little bit of hope.
In the early weeks of his presidency, Obama was the savior figure selling his economic stimulus package, which he said would “save or create” four million jobs. He warned that if Congress didn’t pass his preferred legislation, “this recession might linger for years. Our economy will lose 5 million more jobs. Unemployment will approach double digits. Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.”
Obama got his $862 billion stimulus package, but as the months wore on, unemployment soared into the double-digits and there was no real way to prove to an increasingly skeptical public that it had created millions of jobs. By this fall, Democrats’ prospects in the impending midterm elections were looking grim, so Obama’s new spin was that he was taking a political hit to do what was best for the American people.
“[W]hen I reflect back on the last two years, I do think that given how much stuff was coming at us, we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right,” he explained to the New York Times. “There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular.”
That brings us to this week. Finding himself with diminished political standing following his party’s overwhelming defeat in the Congressional elections, Obama cut a deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax rates for two years for all income levels.
Upon winning the Iowa caucuses in 2008, Obama declared that “the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington.” Yet this Tuesday, he unleashed a furious assault on Republicans who he had just negotiated with, blasting them as “hostage takers” who he was “itching for a fight” with on “a wide range of issues.”
Yet he had to concede this time, he said, because “I don’t make judgments based on what the conventional wisdom is at any given time. I make my judgments based on what I think is right for the country and for the American people right now.
His displeasure didn’t end with Republicans. In fact, he reserved his harshest criticisms for his fellow liberals who attacked the compromise. Obama lashed out at those on the left who were ungrateful for the passage of national health care merely because it didn’t contain their cherished “public option,” a government-run plan to be offered within newly created government-run insurance exchanges.
“If that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done,” he said. “People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting conditions or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.”
In the midst of Obama’s rift with his core supporters, it’s illuminating to remember his primary against Hillary Clinton. With very few policy disagreements, their battle came down to Hillary portraying herself as experienced enough to know how the real world worked, and Obama inspiring his fans to imagine a better one. Yet in his press conference, Obama had morphed into the role of Hillary, scolding his base for having unrealistic expectations.
One can imagine candidate Obama charging that President Obama was too small-minded — that with the right attitude and proper approach, Democrats could have had a public option and that they could have ended tax cuts for the rich.
A lot has changed since Obama’s candidacy, but one thing that has remained the same is that Obama himself — whether he’s urging people to expect more or schooling them on why they should be happy with less — is always the righteous one.
“An artist creates his own moral universe,” a character quips in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. So, too, does our president.