Barack Obama has now completed either the first half or the first quarter of his presidency. His 2011 State of the Union address shows that its central contradiction remains unresolved. Since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention made him a national figure, Obama has been a committed partisan, committed to post-partisanship. In 2008, he went out of his way to denigrate the modest accomplishments of Bill Clinton, president of the Democratic Leadership Council before he became president of the country. Obama promised to be, instead, a Democratic Reagan, a president who moved the center rather than one forced to move toward the center.
Liberals thought his election, combined with the large congressional majorities built up in 2006 and 2008, meant that it was finally time to dream and act big again, to talk about Marshall Plans for one domestic problem or another, and not be laughed at. At the same time, Obama’s talk of one America — where comity and earnest pragmatism displaced ideologues — appealed to swing voters, who were weary of the political class’s contentious arguments while the country’s problems grew worse.
It was never going to be easy to gratify his base and reassure the swing voters who shifted from the Republicans to the Democrats between 2004 and 2008. The theory guiding the Obama presidency during its first two years was that the financial crisis created opportunities to do both, that the voters would accept a much greater degree of government activism than under normal circumstances. The agenda of necessity would facilitate the agenda of choice, to use William Galston’s terminology.
The 2010 election showed that just the opposite happened. The base was demoralized, seeing glasses half-empty in every Democratic accomplishment, while the swing voters were conservatized by deficits and bailouts. In the SOTU opening passages evoking the Tucson mayhem — “We are part of the American family” — Obama returned to the post-partisanship of his 2004 breakthrough speech. The 2010 election was not a rebuke, according to Obama’s analysis, but a demand from the people that both parties work together.
The challenge for Obama, with a reelection campaign on the horizon, will be to make that kind of post-partisanship substantive, rather than just rhetorical. He has no political reason to worry about antagonizing the Democratic base, which has nowhere else to go, but reconciling himself to concessions as big as the one Bill Clinton made in signing the 1996 welfare-reform bill may not be so easy. Being governor of Arkansas habituated Clinton to that kind of accommodation. Being a state senator from Chicago and winning a walk-over election for the U.S. Senate did not prepare Obama to make similar ones. Like the 42 Americans who held the job before him, Obama is finding out that the presidency you want to have usually has little in common with the one history wants you to have.
— William Voegeli, a contributing editor of The Claremont Review of Books, is the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State and a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Salvatori Center.