The untransformational president

A return to that kind of civic culture is what Obama hoped to bring about—all that talk about transforming politics. And that vision was key to his appeal during, and before, the campaign. The most famous sentence in Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech—“there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America”—is a textbook civic-republican sentiment. After the thuggish, with-us-or-against-us posture of the Bush administration, it was something millions of Americans wanted to hear, and believe in.

Well. This many years later, it’s pretty clear that Barack Obama isn’t going to transcend liberal America and conservative America. Why? One reason is historical. Civic republicanism has rarely worked well in practice. Maybe during World War II, when civic duty was crystal clear and citizens were reminded of the common good every time they heard a battle report or picked up their sugar coupons. But otherwise, self-interest usually wins the day…

It would have been great if Obama’s theory had turned out to be correct. The right wing was always going to savage him, but maybe if the financial crisis had never happened he’d have stood a chance of uniting most of the country and isolating the “he’s a socialist” caucus to the fringe where it belongs. That, however, isn’t the hand he was dealt. So now what? He has to change. I wonder if he’s even capable of it, because discarding these beliefs will mean abandoning the fundamental premise of his presidency. But he has no choice. For one thing, he’s not even upholding his own values. A real civic republican doesn’t pay extortionists, as Obama did in the debt-ceiling debate; he calls them extortionists and leads the country on a better and truer path.