Joe Klein published an interesting piece over at Time yesterday (Dems Depressed and Disheartened) in which he points out all the positive things Obama has done since taking office, how many campaign promises he's either fulfilled or is on track towards fulfilling, and how he is doing many things that Democrats have long dreamed off - and how in spite of that, there's a hardening public perception that the bloom is off the rose. Given that Obama has helped overhaul healthcare, has responsibly wound down the war in Iraq, and has named two Supreme Court justices, Klein wants to know: why the heck do Dems have the blues??
It's definitely a question worth asking. Ultimately, I think it boils down to sky-high, unrealistic expectations about what Obama and the Democrats could accomplish in their first two years. And I don't believe that Obama necessarily brought this on himself, either. The Bush years, after all, were dispiriting for the Democrats. The national strategy, from the Democrats' standpoint, became less about doing the most good for the most people, and more about trying to minimize harm to as many as possible. It was the necessary defensive strategy of a minority party (and, I'd argue, it was not the scorched-earth approach that the Republicans have adopted these past two years).
From Obama's very first appearance on the national stage, during the 2004 Democratic Convention, he sounded all the right notes. He spoke of unity, of common purpose, of pragmatic politics and principled compromise for the greater good. And like many others, I thought that once he was elected president, there was a chance that maybe we actually would turn the page and the two parties would try to work together to tackle the significant problems the country was facing.
In retrospect, I can see that I was naive in thinking the Republicans would work with President Obama. Why would they give him bipartisan support and hand him victory after victory? If a health care overhaul successfully covered millions more Americans and brought costs under control, who would ultimately get the credit? If unemployment dropped and Wall Street was reigned in, who would be able to trumpet that to the nation? From the Republican point of view, it has made more sense to block as much of Obama's agenda as possible, and then run against him and the Democrats as all sizzle, no steak. Politically, that may well be a winning formula, but it certainly makes for unconscionable governance.
Klein argues that, in spite of Republican opposition, Obama has still accomplished a great deal. But one thing he hasn't been able to accomplish was to change the tone in Washington. I believe that Democrats across the country have been disappointed that his election didn't herald a new way of doing business, and a more civilized national conversation. Maybe the two-party, adversarial system of government that we have makes that an impossibility. All the same, the American voters would do well to think about Obama's accomplishments so far, and to contemplate how much better off the country would be if the Republicans were truly willing to work in a cooperative, bipartisan fashion.