Charismatic leaders can reshape and even defy their nation’s political culture. Franklin Roosevelt did so during his first term. But Roosevelt inherited a situation so desperate that the public was willing to tolerate any kind of experimentation. Obama entered office with some of the preconditions for radical reform. Crisis was in the air. Wall Street was in disfavor. Voters blamed the downturn on his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. And he had the rudiments of a political movement. But the country was not in as desperate shape as it was in 1933, and the opposition was still functioning. To have put in place a program that might have spurred at least the beginnings of a recovery, Obama would have had to be both extraordinarily bold and fiercely combative. And he was neither.(The context is John Judis's article about how the world is recapitulating the mistakes made early in the Great Depression. He says that "Obama—at least judging by his recent jobs speech to Congress—seems to understand that this approach is leading to economic disaster; but he may have waited too long to begin making this case to the American people". Judis's entire article can be read starting here. (Via Digby.))
In dealing with the downturn and financial crisis, the president was cautious—as evidenced by his choice of Geithner, who had presided over the Federal Reserve Bank of New York during the crash. Like MacDonald, Obama harbored a dream of bringing the parties and interest groups together behind his program. As The Financial Times’s Martin Wolf put it, “Mr. Obama wishes to be President of a country that does not exist. In his fantasy US, politicians bury differences in bipartisan harmony.” After the bruising battle over the debt ceiling, Obama may have finally put his dream of a post-partisan politics to rest and adopted a more aggressive political style. But the narrow opening for dramatic change that existed in early 2009 has probably closed.
That gets what to me is the essential point, as I said a while ago: Obama came into office in a once-in-a-generation moment, in which the normal rules of American politics might have been overturned and the country could have been set on a genuinely new direction -- the economic catastrophe averted, the global warming apocalypse reversed, the crimes of the Bush era ended and prosecuted (rather than covered-up and continued). And he flubbed it. Whether he did so because he was inept or evil doesn't actually matter at this point: the point is the chance is gone. Similarly, whether Obama's recent combative rhetoric and almost-on-the-liberal-side-of-the-conservative/liberal-divide proposals is just a cynical election-year ploy (as Greenwald argues) or is a genuine, belated recognition that their approach was a total failure (as should have been obvious from before it was tried, frankly).
Various centrist commentators, (e.g. Steve Benin) are claiming that Obama is now doing what his left-wing detractors have been advocating for a long time. I can't speak for anyone else, of course, but for my part, this isn't true: I think it's too late. Obama had one shot at this -- in the first few months of his presidency. Maybe he could have reversed course after a few months -- say, when he finally got 60 votes in the Senate -- with a "we gave it our best shot" moment. But by, say, December 2009, he'd blown it for sure. And of course by the time that the Republicans won in 2010, it was way, way, way too late.
Obama had a chance to save the country. He didn't. Now it's too late. And now I myself see no possible hope on the horizon. Oh, we can fantasize about some massive citizen campaign changing things. While we're dreaming, though, I'd like a few million dollars, and a pony. Seems just about as likely.
I think that 2009 may well have been this country's last chance to change course. And Obama was the man who could do it. At the very least, he could have tried. But he didn't -- didn't even try, let alone succeed. And for that I think Obama will be, in the words of a politician who did not flinch when his test came, "damned in time and eternity."
Update: In the interests of full disclosure, I should note I've used the joke that is this post's title before. And (although I thought of it independently,* for what little that's worth) I wasn't the first either. In comments to his own post, PNH explains the joke for those who miss it.
* Twice, actually, since I didn't remember making it before.