There is an excellent and quite revealing interview with President Obama (conducted by Jann Wenner) in the October 15 edition of Rolling Stone. Several things are clear. First, President Obama views his accomplishments in the first two years quite positively:
When I talk to Democrats around the country, I tell them, “Guys, wake up here. We have accomplished an incredible amount in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.” I came in and had to prevent a Great Depression, restore the financial system so that it functions, and manage two wars. In the midst of all that, I ended one of those wars, at least in terms of combat operations. We passed historic health care legislation, historic financial regulatory reform and a huge number of legislative victories that people don’t even notice. We wrestled away billions of dollars of profit that were going to the banks and middlemen through the student-loan program, and now we have tens of billions of dollars that are going directly to students to help them pay for college. We expanded national service more than we ever have before.
The Recovery Act alone represented the largest investment in research and development in our history, the largest investment in infrastructure since Dwight Eisenhower, the largest investment in education — and that was combined, by the way, with the kind of education reform that we hadn’t seen in this country in 30 years — and the largest investment in clean energy in our history.
You look at all this, and you say, “Folks, that’s what you elected me to do.” I keep in my pocket a checklist of the promises I made during the campaign, and here I am, halfway through my first term, and we’ve probably accomplished 70 percent of the things that we said we were going to do — and by the way, I’ve got two years left to finish the rest of the list, at minimum. So I think that it is very important for Democrats to take pride in what we’ve accomplished.
Second, he views things with a streak of pragmatism and is disinclined to follow the lead of many of his former disciples and make the perfect the enemy of the good:
What is true, and this is part of what can frustrate folks, is that over the past 20 months, we made a series of decisions that were focused on governance, and sometimes there was a conflict between governance and politics. So there were some areas where we could have picked a fight with Republicans that might have gotten our base feeling good, but would have resulted in us not getting legislation done.
I could have had a knock-down, drag-out fight on the public option that might have energized you and The Huffington Post, and we would not have health care legislation now. I could have taken certain positions on aspects of the financial regulatory bill, where we got 90 percent of what we set out to get, and I could have held out for that last 10 percent, and we wouldn’t have a bill. You’ve got to make a set of decisions in terms of “What are we trying to do here? Are we trying to just keep everybody ginned up for the next election, or at some point do you try to win elections because you’re actually trying to govern?” I made a decision early on in my presidency that if I had an opportunity to do things that would make a difference for years to come, I’m going to go ahead and take it.
Third, his post-partisan yearnings aside, he has nothing positive to say of the GOP.
It “has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place.”
The Republicans assumed a strategy of “sitting on the sidelines, trying to gum up the works, based on the assumption that given the scope and size of the recovery, the economy probably wouldn’t be very good, even in 2010, and that they were better off being able to assign the blame to us than work with us to try to solve the problem.”
This strategy ( “the unprecedented obstruction”) “ sent a message to the public that ‘Gosh, Obama said he was going to come in and change Washington, and it’s exactly the same, it’s more contentious than ever.’ … it created an atmosphere in which a public that is already very skeptical of government, but was maybe feeling hopeful right after my election, felt deflated and sort of felt, “We’re just seeing more of the same.”
Fourth, the President recognizes the diversity of the Tea Party activists but believes they are being used by K street.
It is an “amalgam” of “sincere libertarians,” social conservatives, people who are “troubled by what they saw as a series of instances in which the middle-class and working-class people have been abused or hurt by special interests and Washington” and “some aspects of the Tea Party that are a little darker, that have to do with anti-immigrant sentiment or are troubled by what I represent as the president.”
“There’s no doubt that the infrastructure and the financing of the Tea Party come from some very traditional, very powerful, special-interest lobbies. …financed by very conservative industries and forces that are opposed to enforcement of environmental laws, that are opposed to an energy policy that would be different than the fossil-fuel-based approach we’ve been taking, that don’t believe in regulations that protect workers from safety violations in the workplace, that want to make sure that we are not regulating the financial industries in ways that we have.”
Finally, he is quite frustrated with the Progressive base that put him into office, particularly in anticipation of what is likely to be a very difficult midterm election:
“It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. …The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible….
We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard — that’s what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we’ve got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.
If you’re serious, now’s exactly the time that people have to step up.”
This is an interesting interview and I strongly recommend it to readers of Pileus. It is very clear that “hope and change” and the “post-partisan” aspirations that were so central to the 2008 campaign have collided with political reality. It is also quite clear that much of this has taken Mr. Obama by surprise.
Outside of his most ardent supporters (now his critics), he may have been the only one who would have found this surprising.