Obama’s theory of politics is doomed

Fundamental to the social movement model is a conception of American political history in which movements, and not presidents, are the true instigators for change. Presidents are merely reactive. They are not the main protagonists. Obama himself endorsed this conception constantly on the campaign trail, and has repeated it often as president, proclaiming that “real change comes from the bottom up.” Supposedly, all of our progressive presidents have been preternaturally cautious, self-interested men who originated nothing themselves. Only forceful pressure from outside movements led them to undertake the audacious efforts for which history has wrongly given them credit. Hence, Abraham Lincoln would never have become the Great Emancipator had the abolitionists not pushed him to do so. Hence, pressure from the radical left and organized labor forced FDR into launching the New Deal…

Obama in office upheld the community organizers’ post-partisan credo, trying to bring together opposing forces and finding common ground, in part under the pressure of the organizer’s own reasonableness. But that was not how it worked in Washington during the past two years; nor had it worked that way for 20 years. A ruthless and right-wing Republican Party spurned talk of common ground as a sign of weakness, and did everything it could to ensure that Obama’s presidency would fail. But oblivious to the long-standing internal dynamics of the Republican Party, Obama continued to vaunt his brand of “post-partisanship.” Now, after the ruins of the midterms, the president must readjust. He can, if he wishes, draw on recent historical experience. After his rocky first two years brought on the Republican tidal wave of 1994, President Clinton, with no illusions about “post-partisanship,” entered a state of day-to-day political trench warfare, co-opting Republican rhetoric about family values to give them Democratic content, winning targeted but crucial legislation on matter such as health care, and risking political capital by endorsing welfare reform that the left wing of his own party lambasted—dogmatically and short-sightedly, it turned out—as the death-knell of liberal reform.