It"s not the word his opponents use for him, because it might ruin their rather stupid meme that the president is ineffective or hasn't done anything. Today's momentous and justbipartisan Senate bill for health insurance reform shows us yet again not to under-estimate this president's patience, perseverance and ... ruthlessness. Being ruthless doesn't always mean jumping up and down or hurting people (although three Somali pirates know that when Obama needs to pull the trigger, he can). Ruthless means sticking to a strategy even when everyone else is panicking, even when your own side is yelling at you and the other side is engaged in such loopy propaganda it's painful.
But as a reader noted, think of what Obama might have done by the end of his first year, if his current momentum is sustained. He will have passed a huge stimulus bill that averted a second great depression and invested a huge amount in green energy and badly needed infrastructure; he will have passed the comprehensive health insurance reform that has eluded Washington for decades; he will have made a critical decision on Afghanistan (I hope it's for a responsible withdrawal); he will have begun the process of leaving Iraq; he will have presided over the breakneck restructuring of GM and Chrysler and steered the US economy into an actual recovery; he has - more powerfully than even I expected - transformed the image of the United States from the nadir of the Cheney years; he will have stopped torture; he will have done a small part to inspire the Green Revolution in Iran and yet also engaged its regime in ways not seen since 1979.
The debt will be the next challenge - to appeal to the fiscally conservative middle for real fiscal sacrifice and change. If he can manage to shift the direction away from the Bush-Cheney fiscal catastrophe toward safer harbor in his first term, then the right will actually have to come up with new ideas rather than exhausted slogans in order to win back power. And that will be very good for conservatism as well.
Of course, events, dear boy, events. We do not know the future and a lot could still come undone. I may be counting too many chickens in the sinking ship. We'll see.
Yes, I will continue to put pressure on him on the deep questions of civil rights and the laws of war. That's my job. But it's also my job to note how he has not closed off many avenues definitively in either area. I put it this way the other day: he has embraced pragmatism over purism and yet not sacrificed principle. I believe that if Bush and Cheney do not come clean on their role in authorizing war crimes, then the sheer legal inevitability of some sort of prosecution will come. The tentative Holder inquiry may find things that lead to other inquiries. As for civil rights, Obama's passivity is another ruthless setting of priorities - and the gays don't hack it. That doesn't mean we shouldn't scream and shout; we should. It helps him. Remember FDR? "Make me do it." It does mean he has the ruthlessness to make us mad - and carry on.
You do not turn this ship around overnight - and, as Garry Wills has noted, the empire has a logic and momentum of its own. Now this occasional diffidence, his hanging back, his weighing of options, his flushing out the positions of others even as he quietly strengthens his own may all seem like weakness at times. But this cunning bobbing and weaving, this ability to say "not yet" to his strongest supporters, to withstand the psychological pressure he must be under at all times, to live with the grotesque insults without fighting back: this takes a very steely backbone. It is ruthlessness of a subtle kind; which is why the big bullies of the world - Netanyahu, for example - cannot wrap their heads around it and are still beaming with the pride of the fool.
If I'm asked as the anniversary of his election approaches whether my confidence in him has waned, I would have to say: on the contrary. Even when he maddens me, he impresses. I am deeply angry about the still-extant military ban but simultaneously impressed with his ability to resist the moral clarity of swift change. This is the Obama paradox in a way, and it is one Niebuhr understood well.
What I have felt disappointed in is the fact that too many of us have forgotten the core message of the campaign: this is not the work of one man, but of all of us.
We are the ones we've been waiting for, remember. And too many of us are still waiting.
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