Forget Kenya. The president’s secret political philosophy is apparently rooted in seventeenth-century Rotterdam.
Perhaps the whole approach was a mistake from the start, and Obama should have adopted an aggressive, ambitious posture to counter his opponents—or Hillary Clinton should have been president. Alternatively, one could argue that Obama didn’t invest enough energy in reform, process, and deliberative democracy. Imagine, for example, if instead of letting Congress figure out health reform, and instead of driving the policy from the White House (as many liberals contend he should have done), the administration had organized hundreds of mass community discussions, using the technology perfected in deliberations on topics such as the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, to involve tens of thousands of citizens in the questions of how (and even whether) to ensure universal access to health care and lower societal costs. It might not have worked, but it might have provided an alternative outlet to the raw anger of the Tea Party and the violent town hall congressional meetings of the summer of 2009. Nor did the administration live up to the promise to fundamentally change the power relationship among campaign donors, lobbyists, and government—but should we really be surprised that the most successful fund-raiser in modern political history would not ultimately be willing to shake things up?
Another possibility is that a crisis is simply the wrong moment for new politics. In a way, it’s miraculous that Obama was able to build the foundations for some very different approaches to governance, such as the Race to the Top education program, within the panicked, hateful environment of the economic crisis. Reading, for example, the recent report from the Republican National Committee on its party’s woes, one can see the effort to find a way out of the apocalyptic, all-or-nothing politics of 2009-2012, a politics that is unsustainable and out of equilibrium. As the political system slowly returns to balance, this might be the moment for a fresh politics, a new relationship between citizens and government, and a chance for Obama’s mode of politics—which, after all, reflects a deep American tradition—to show its strengths.
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