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Democratic Expectations: A Nation of Toddlers?



Authors as Published

I listened to an interview today with National Public Radio’s Senior Political Editor on that network’s Sunday Morning version of Weekend Edition and was more than a little dumbstruck. The central theme of the questions and answers was that President Obama has yet to accomplish much in his tenure. The editor noted the health care bill has not yet passed and the President’s foreign policy initiatives have not yet transformed Iran, North Korea or China. And, he has not ended the conflicts into which his predecessor entered the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, unemployment remains high and economic uncertainty a staple for all Americans. For these reasons, the editor opined, Obama remains more a tantalizing possibility as a leader rather than a leader.

It struck me while listening that such analysis both presupposes an extraordinary capacity for the office of the presidency and its incumbent to affect events that is essentially juvenile in its expectations while also contributing to an increasing American propensity to consider all matters politic without examining their context. It also assigns a bar to what constitutes effective leadership, in a polity designed to hobble it, at an extraordinary level. President Obama it seems should not only have stopped the worst hemorrhaging of the nation’s economy in decades, he should also have created millions of jobs pronto and while he was at it through sheer force of will or magic capacity somehow shifted not only American foreign policy, but also that of all regimes whose policies we perceive as pernicious or antithetical to our own. That the President sought aggressive action to address the economic situation and did work with leaders from all sectors to stop a possible economic calamity was set aside by this editor since the economy has not already bounced back to offer millions of jobs. I know of few economists or serious analysts who believe the President or government acting alone can or could secure that result acting alone in any case. But it is doubtless true that the recovery is nascent rather than robust. How much responsibility can appropriately be assigned a President who has served one year for that situation? Similarly, we are on the cusp of securing a major health care reform of the sort sought by various administrations regardless of partisanship since 1911, but since it has not yet passed, somehow this editor implied, the President is lacking. No one else has come so close to such change (whether one admires what is afoot or not), but since it has not already passed, it is somehow to be set aside. One might undertake a similar analysis of the administration’s efforts to avert economic catastrophe. That matters have not already been set right and with full employment, is somehow an issue for the President and one can just imagine wagging one’s finger and signaling tsk, tsk!

It does not seem to occur to the general populace, or to those “analysts” of politics reporting on the government’s efforts, that it might be appropriate to consider what might constitute a reasonable standard of expectations for so complex a set of dilemmas as now besets American government (whoever is in charge). Instead of such self-conscious and prudential deliberation, however, because we would wish it so collectively and we are empowered by our franchise to determine who “wins” and who does not, we set whatever standard we like and throw whatever tantrums we wish when those to whom we turn cannot magically make our challenges go away as fast as we might desire. We teach toddlers that maturation and a knowledge of life’s complexities demands a more leavened and patient view and that we cannot typically have all we wish when we might want it. Can we instill a similar ethic or prudential reasonableness in our citizenry and its pundit class? Successful democratic governance may well depend upon it.

Publication Date

January 16, 2010