There are significant promises that Barack Obama has fulfilled in the White House: He has stood against torture, ended the Iraq War, and killed Osama bin Laden. He signed a healthcare-reform bill into law and helped to extend gay rights. Love or hate these policies, they are due in large part to his efforts as president. But as another State of the Union address recedes into memory, it is equally clear that the Obama Administration won't ever fulfill one of its core selling points: the chance to pass reforms that address the most worrisome flaws in our democratic system. To use the parlance of the 2008 campaign, it won't achieve "change."
The word, as invoked back then, didn't just mean passing Democratic legislation into law, or getting poor people health insurance, or letting gays serve in the military. Those are significant policies that will affect the lives of many millions of people. But even if you regard all of them as salutary, it's worth remembering that Obama asserted a need to "fundamentally change the way Washington works," an approach Hillary Clinton regarded as naive, but that Americans embraced.
"Let me be clear," Obama said, "this isn't just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it's about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies." But he's given up on "ending the failed system," if he ever intended to end it. In fact, listening to him, it's plausible to conclude that he's no longer convinced that the system is corrupt. He regards his healthcare law as a success, though passing it required buying off special interests and being influenced by lobbyists—the very things that he once identified as making success an impossibility. He has done far more to persecute whistleblowers than to protect them.
His bygone promises to run "the most transparent administration in history" are a subject of mockery, given how often he has invoked the state-secrets privilege and permitted national-security officials in his administration to actively mislead the public.
And his meager efforts at financial reform don't appear to preclude future shenanigans by Wall Street banks that remain "too big to fail" and retain significant influence in Washington. Perhaps Jonathan Chait is correct that it was always unrealistic to expect more ambitious systemic reforms from Obama. If so, it remains the case that many Americans voted for Obama precisely because he promised to attempt them. Take Larry Lessig. "I believed that he had a vision of what was wrong with our government, and a passion and commitment to fix it," he wrote. "Clinton had a raft of programs she promised to push through Congress. Nowhere on that list was fundamental reform of how Washington worked."
Given why Lessig voted for Obama (despite disagreeing with him on many other matters), it's easy to see why he wound up disillusioned. "When critics like me attacked this retreat, the administration defended itself by claiming the president was never a 'leftist," he wrote. "But the problem with this administration is not that it is too conservative. And certainly not that it is too liberal .... It is too conventional. It has left untouched the corruption that the president identified, which means that it has left as hopeless any real reform for the left."
Perhaps that goes too far.
But Americans will continue to live under a government with significant transparency problems, a culture of lobbying that is often tantamount to sanctioned corruption, and an executive branch that undermines the separation of powers, often via dubious Office of Legal Counsel interpretations that no one gets to see.
Imagining that Obama would fix all those problems was naive, but incremental success would have been possible in an alternative world where he actually meant what he told voters and followed through on the course he once deemed imperative. Even today, the Edward Snowden revelations seem suited to reforms in keeping with the old Obama, the one who ran against Bush-era warrantless wiretapping. The new Obama isn't even willing to back several of the reforms suggested by his own task force. He is more enamored of preserving the surveillance state's autonomy than upholding the ideals he spoke about as a senator.
For his final years in office, Obama says that he'll make use of executive orders to advance his agenda. His critics worry that he's poised to violate the Constitution. Perhaps he is. But 2008 Obama could achieve a lot with executive orders legally. He could order the CIA to stop preventing the release of the torture report, and comply with America's treaty obligation to prosecute torturers, a single step that would do more than anything else to stop future waterboardings. He could honor the spirit of his commitment to whistleblowers by pardoning Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, even if he won't pardon Snowden.
And as Snowden helpfully reminds us, "Americans should keep in mind that the National Security Agency operates under the president’s executive authority alone.”
So Obama could do all sorts of things ... but won't. Whatever he once was or wasn't, Obama is now a creature of the Washington, D.C., establishment. He is captive to its loyalties and prejudices, and committed to safeguarding its interests. That doesn't mean he hasn't or won't accomplish anything worth while, but there are whole categories of problems that he won't try to fix. Hope and change are dead. And that's a shame. Americans are unlikely to support a politician making similar promises in the future because Obama has made them impossible to believe. His tenure has made systemic change less likely than when he began.