Barack Obama, inaction hero

But when he talks about tackling income inequality he no longer speaks of national movements. It’s not because the public isn’t ready to be led. The country is still looking for a political champion to rally them, but unlike a previous version of Obama who would have promised that he could channel the passion outside Washington to change Washington, his aspirations are more modest now. He hopes to give “voice to an impression, I think a lot of Americans have, which is it’s harder to make it now if you are just the average citizen who’s willing to work hard and has good values, and wasn’t born with huge advantages or having enjoyed extraordinary luck—that the ground is less secure under your feet.” After six years the president recognizes that people are looking for “other flavors … somebody else out there who can give me that spark of inspiration or excitement.”

If this more realistic posture seems at odds with the call to a “Year of Action,” that may be only because we are misinterpreting what President Obama means by action. He’s not talking about showy gestures, but actions that unfold over a much longer timeline. In the realistic assessment of his office, the president offers a theory about presidential progress. “Sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant. I suspect that Ronald Reagan, if you’d asked him, would not have considered the earned-income-tax-credit provision in tax reform to be at the top of his list of accomplishments. On the other hand, what the E.I.T.C. has done, starting with him, being added to by Clinton, being used by me during the Recovery Act, has probably kept more people out of poverty than a whole lot of other government programs that are currently in place.”