Cutting Our New President Some Slack
While in Washington for the Inauguration, my wife and I gorged ourselves on the District’s unparalleled cultural feast. At one point, I found myself staring at an original copy of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. I read the whole thing.
As I read it, I recalled the disappointment I had felt as a child on reading it for the first time. It is not a clean document. It did not abolish slavery everywhere in the United States, but only in parts “in rebellion against the United States.” Even then, there were exceptions: a laundry list of Southern counties near the Capital, mostly in northern Virginia.
Oddly enough, the excepted counties included the very same ones whose votes helped put Barack Obama in the White House. Noting that fact, I shivered. Was Lincoln’s political vision so acute as to peer through the gloom of centuries and see the light ahead?
Political genius is hard for ordinary mortals—even ordinary intellectuals—to understand. I and many others thought Obama was “weak” for “coddling” Hillary and Bill during the primary campaign. But he won. Most of the country, including virtually all of our political punditry, thought his race would bar him from the White House. But he won.
Those facts alone suggest that we now have in the White House the greatest political genius since FDR, maybe since Lincoln. Somehow we have always managed to find gifted leaders when we need them most.
But trust comes hard to a people as abused as we. After eight years of the worst rule in our history, we paradoxically expect swift miracles.
Politics is a messy business. Some historians doubt Lincoln’s commitment to abolishing slavery. They say he freed the slaves too late and did so only for expediency’s sake. They forget that, even today—in the age of nuclear weapons and mass murder—the Civil War is still our most destructive conflict, by far. It has left the most lasting scars on our land and on our national psyche, which every visitor to the District still can see.
When Obama won, the satirical rag The Onion headlined “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.” The joke’s inherent truth made it funny. We do stand on the roughest patch of our national history since the Civil War, the last century’s world wars, and the Great Depression that divided them.
And we know the problems are not ours alone. They are global. Banks are failing and jobs are disappearing from Guangdong to Siberia. And just today pundit Tom Friedman virtually threw up his hands at the Israeli-Palestinian problem, although promising a more positive approach in his next column.
Not only is the whole globe suffering and rudderless. After nearly two-and-a-half centuries, the deals we made to knit together thirteen disparate colonies—some slave, some free—are fraying. We lost two or three extra years to Dubya and Cheney because our system won’t let us remove failed leaders on a vote of “no confidence.” And with every vote in the Senate, our Great Compromise holds our mighty states hostage to the whim of their less educated, less populated and less productive counterparts.
Just read today’s editorial on education in the New York Times. The House, which reflects population power relatively well, is ready to enforce national standards in education and put gifted teachers where they are most needed. The Senate—where bare land still speaks louder than people and commerce—wants to perpetuate a fragmented system that lets ignorant folk deny evolution and keeps poor folk in the dark. The Great Compromise’s dead hand still rattles the editorial pages of our national press.
The problems that President Obama seeks to solve are not of his making. He inherited them. They vary in age from ancient to modern. The Sunni-Shia and Arab-Persian splits go back millennia. Our own structural defects are over two centuries old. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes back sixty years, and roots of our economic collapse trace back four decades.
So we owe our gifted young president some time.
My one wish is that he would explain himself more, if not to the public then to selected confidants in Congress. Maybe his genius is intuitive, like Mozart playing in the style of other great composers, upside down. Maybe it’s hard to articulate. But if he could explain to just a few why he pushes here and bides his time there, he might create a nucleus of political reason much broader than his own inner circle. His speech on race was like that.
Maybe that’s what he’s trying to do with his new social agenda. I hope so.