A different, unexpected racial argument has taken shape. Race, always the deepest and most volatile fault line in American history, has now become the primal grievance in our politics, the source of a narrative of persecution each side uses to make sense of the world. Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.

-Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine


As a longtime supporter of President Obama, it would be disingenuous for me to say that I am not disappointed in his presidency thus far.  This disappointment has almost nothing to do with policy.  I recall sitting in our kitchen in Missoula, back in 2009, waiting for and then toasting the house vote which passed the Affordable Care Act.  Two things seemed equally obvious at that time: that the passage was an enormously significant step towards a more serious approach to national health care which could not and would not be undone, and that the acrimony caused by said passage would last a long time, and prevent the law from really making a substantive difference for a decade or more.  Both of these have come to pass.

My disappoint is rather in Mr. Obama’s failure to be a transformational leader, or at least an immediately transformational one.  Whether the march of history will make him one is as yet unknown, and likely won’t be  for decades.

What is clear today, and has been since 2008, is that Mr. Obama has the opportunity to be such a president.  Theodore Roosevelt had the person attributes to be a transformational leader.  Among other things, his wealthy background combined with his populist awareness made his trust-busting and economic program both extremely convincing and extremely effective.  He, and he alone, was able to do a generations worth of work in a year or two.  He was also president at the right time; with economic conditions that allowed him to shift the country enormously, and enough wild land and game left that he was able to make his unmatched (and possibly unmatchable) impact on conservation.  FDR had a similar position with respect to economic conditions, as did Ronald Reagan with social ones.

Reagan is worth a detour here, because the economic legacy of the Obama presidency has been and will be the death rattle of Reaganomics.  Reagan’s economic plans, most prominently massive tax cuts in his first year as president, were fradulent from the start.  They only passed because of (knowingly) false estimates on the fiscal impacts presented to Congress and the public by then OMB director David Stockman.  The rest of the Reagan presidency saw a slow walking back of these cuts, as well as an ever-growing debt which was the direct result.  GHW Bush lost to Bill Clinton in no small part because he was responsible enough to break his campaign promise and raise taxes, as a continued measure of Reaganomics damage control.  The Reagan, trickle-down, supply side myth saw a resurgance under GW Bush, who turned a budget surplus into a housing and banking crash, and whom history will forever regard as a compelling reason to go piss on William Rehnquist’s grave.

Obama then has been saddled, or blessed, with two opportunities to be a transformational president.  The first has to do with sealing the casket on Reagan’s disingenuous economic and social legacy, and figuring out how to move beyond it faster.  This movement will happen regardless, but it would be better if it happened a little faster than simply allowing those with a living memory of the 80s to die.  There is a profitable conversation to be had concerning how to balance individual agency in a democracy with the duty of government to history, but it has not been taking place in the last four years.

The second opportunity for Obama to become a transformational president is, of course, with respect to race.  Mr. Chait’s article, which is well worth your time, does an excellent job outlining just how thoroughly gray the present situation is.  Broadly put, there have been many instances of racist outcome in both political and individual outcomes since Obama became president.  Often, there has been little if any conscious intent behind them, which does nothing to lessen their severity.  Chait cites a study (you can read it here) which shows a strickingly durable correlation between conservative political affiliation in various southern states and the percentage the 1860 population which were slaves.  The greater the percentage 154 years ago, the more often the present populace votes in a conservative fashion, even when controlled for a large number of mitigating factors.  As Chait concludes:   “The Rochester study should, among other things, settle a very old and deep argument about the roots of America’s unique hostility to the welfare state. Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.”

To negotiate race Obama must then address economic issues, and vice versa.  This goes a long way towards explaining why he has had so little outward success in doing either, and perhaps why a ways into the future his delicate and measured approach might be regarded as transformational.  Obama understands gray areas, understands complex historical factors, and understands how long entrenched social bias will hang around.  He has gone out of his way to not fall into strereotyping or make rash decisions.  Often this has looked like waffling, which is hard to stomach.  My hope is that in the end it will prove to be the right choice.