Obama rediscovers audacity

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When future historians look back, Obama’s recent boldness on Iran and other issues may force a reevaluation of his presidency. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

For a long period of his presidency, Barack Obama seemed resigned to sloganeering his way around hard choices, as if catchphrases begat vision and not the other way around. For a while he was “winning the future,” until that got old and I guess he had to call it a draw. There was “built to last” and a “fair shot” and something called “middle-out economics,” which came and went quickly, probably because it sounded like a plan to make Americans pear-shaped.

Obama’s historic pact with Iran, however, caps what has been a remarkably bold and focused several months. Obama no longer goes around self-consciously mouthing the latest mantra he only half buys himself; now he’s like some old guy with a bucket list, checking off boxes and basking in the consternation that trails him.

It seems to me that at this late stage, Obama has finally gotten back to what some of us thought his improbable presidency was going to be about in the first place: relegating the past to the past and forcing us to confront a more modern reality.

Of course, Obama’s 2008 campaign — based on the emptiest slogan of them all, “hope and change” — meant lots of different things to lots of different people. Some people voted for Obama because they thought him less partisan, others because they thought him more unabashedly liberal and antiwar. Obama was, more than anything else, an inspirational story, and where you found the inspiration was totally up to you.

For a lot of younger Americans, though, Obama’s core appeal was generational. Going back to his brief time in the Senate, which is when I first met him, Obama seemed to convey an absurdist’s appreciation of Washington — the way older politicians went on having the same old debates year after year, even as the world around them transformed itself, technologically and socially, into something almost unrecognizable.

Obama rediscovers audacity

Obama was technically a baby boomer, but culturally he was the first president to come of age after the ’60s-era battles that still preoccupied most of our political leadership. He came to politics with skepticism and an understated sense of humor, like the kid who steps into his grandfather’s house and suggests that, you know, maybe the lime Formica has had its day.

As president, though, Obama did not do much to dislodge the 20th century debates over the size of government or the role of the military; if anything, he presided over a time of retrenchment. He spent most of his first year staving off a 1930s-style economic calamity, and by the time the worst had passed, he and his advisers had convinced themselves they were the new New Dealers, while their Republican opponents channeled Barry Goldwater.

Even Obama’s signature achievement, the health care law that now seems destined to endure, did more to complete Lyndon Johnson’s vision of the Great Society than it did to untangle the employer-based system of the last century’s workforce. It was a monumental achievement, but hardly a visionary one.

Between the two calamitous midterm cycles of his presidency, in 2010 and 2014, Obama seemed adrift and cautious, capitulating to the reactionary left while trying to hold off a siege from the reactionary right. Mostly he appeared fatalistic, as if the forces of social and global change he portended would simply have to assert themselves in their own time. He resolved to conduct a presidency by “phone and pen,” rather than legislation, which was another way of saying he had accepted the limits of his reach.

Culled from https://www.yahoo.com/politics/obama-rediscovers-audacity-when-future-historians-124187729381.html

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