NATION– We should remember what it felt like one year ago, as the ability to recall it emotionally will pass and it is an emotional memory as much as anything else. It was a moment rare in a democracy’s history. The feeling was palpable–to supporters and opponents alike–that something important had happened. America had elected, the young candidate promised, a transformational president. And wrapped in a campaign that had produced the biggest influx of new voters and small-dollar contributions in a generation, the claim seemed credible, almost intoxicating, and just in time.
Yet a year into the presidency of Barack Obama, it is already clear that this administration is an opportunity missed. Not because it is too conservative. Not because it is too liberal. But because it is too conventional. Obama has given up the rhetoric of his early campaign–a campaign that promised to “challenge the broken system in Washington” and to “fundamentally change the way Washington works.” Indeed, “fundamental change” is no longer even a hint.
Instead, we are now seeing the consequences of a decision made at the most vulnerable point of Obama’s campaign–just when it seemed that he might really have beaten the party’s presumed nominee. For at that moment, Obama handed the architecture of his new administration over to a team that thought what America needed most was another Bill Clinton. A team chosen by the brother of one of DC’s most powerful lobbyists, and a White House headed by the quintessential DC politician. A team that could envision nothing more than the ordinary politics of Washington–the kind of politics Obama had called “small.” A team whose imagination–politically–is tiny.
These tiny minds–brilliant though they may be in the conventional game of DC–have given up what distinguished Obama’s extraordinary campaign. Not the promise of healthcare reform or global warming legislation–Hillary Clinton had embraced both of those ideas, and every other substantive proposal that Obama advanced. Instead, the passion that Obama inspired grew from the recognition that something fundamental had gone wrong in the way our government functions, and his commitment to reform it.
For Obama once spoke for the anger that has now boiled over in even the blue state Massachusetts–that our government is corrupt; that fundamental change is needed. As he told us, both parties had allowed “lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system.” And “unless we’re willing to challenge [that] broken system…nothing else is going to change.” “The reason” Obama said he was “running for president [was] to challenge that system.” For “if we’re not willing to take up that fight, then real change–change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans–will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.”
This administration has not “taken up that fight.” Instead, it has stepped down from the high ground the president occupied on January 20, 2009, and played a political game no different from the one George W. Bush played, or Bill Clinton before him. Obama has accepted the power of the “defenders of the status quo” and simply negotiated with them. “Audacity” fits nothing on the list of last year’s activity, save the suggestion that this is the administration the candidate had promised.
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Editors’ Note: We encourage readers moved by this essay to sign the Change Congress petition, a drive to enact solutions proposed in this article. Click here to sign. A video commentary by Professor Lessig can be viewed here.
© THE NATION 2010