“We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states.”
“In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?
“We are the change that we seek.”
And, especially: “If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists—to protect them and to promote their common welfare—all else is lost.”
For all the progress Obama claimed as his own Tuesday night—much of it hard-earned and deserved—he can’t escape this ugly fact: The public has less faith in politics and government today than when he started.
One might say, as Obama did, all else is lost.
To be fair, faith-in-government ratings had been in decline for decades before Obama took office. Plus, the guy inherited a mess. Republican Party leaders vowed to cripple Obama’s presidency from the start, and shifts within the GOP made compromise virtually untenable.
President Clinton’s sex scandal and the polarizing presidency of George W. Bush left the public divided and cynical. Americans were both hungry for the change Obama promised and ill-equipped to help him deliver it.
The nation’s first African-American president also faced opposition rooted in racial intolerance, the nation’s original sin inflamed once again by demographic upheaval.
Finally, there is Obama himself. Arriving in Washington genuinely committed to changing the culture, he almost immediately surrendered to it. Obstinate Republicans, change-adverse Democrats, cynical journalists, polarized voters, racist voters, and ignorant voters soon became more than obstacles to Obama’s agenda, they became excuses.
When they’re being honest, Democratic leaders will tell you they’ve been disappointed in Obama’s lack of leadership. Hillary Clinton, for one, says she could do better than Obama at bringing constructive bipartisanship to Washington.
“Because I have much more experience doing it,” she told The Des Moines Register on Monday.
Obama acknowledged the fears and frustrations that have fueled separate strains of populism—Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left—while reminding voters that America has survived past bouts of economic, social, political, and demographic change.
He said democracy “grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.”
He continued: “Too many Americans feel that way right now. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”