Obama Was Never a Revolutionary

by John McQuaid John McQuaid is a journalist specializing in science, environment, and various forms of government dysfunction. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, U.S. News, Wired, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He is also the co-author, with Mark Schleifstein, of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms.

He worked as a feature writer, Latin America correspondent, and political reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans before turning to investigative projects, including a 2002 series that anticipated Katrina in many ways. His work has won many national awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1997 for a series on the global fisheries crisis. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife and two children.

For more information see www.johnmcquaid.com (warning: a work in progress).

As Jon Stewart put it, "so when does 'hope' turn into 'change'?" As Arianna points out, we still don't know. To any outside observer it sure looks like Obama has lost his campaign mojo and gotten crushed in the whinging gears of Washington's political apparatus. But I'm not so sure.

I've been in Washington since the early 1990s. During that time, let's face it: very little happened. Well, that's not quite right: a lot of things happened, many of them consequential. There was a presidential impeachment, a government shutdown, and several military campaigns and wars. But when you get right down to it, what did all that mean in terms of the way the government ran and its basic priorities? Very little.

The basic structure of American politics -- the array of interest groups and party structures, the government's basic assumptions about what was politically possible and desirable -- didn't change much at all. Mainly, well, it got stupider. Media coverage got stupider. Electoral politics got stupider. And, especially during the Bush administration, government itself got stupider, or at least prone to spectacular breakdowns. With the assent and encouragement of the White House, large swaths of the federal government became hostage to narrow-minded interest groups of one kind or another that simply didn't have a stake in making it work.

Meanwhile, the world was changing. Fast. Big problems such as global warming and collateralized debt obligations emerged. They were catastrophic and just plain weird, and they didn't fit any of our usual political paradigms. When the government can't respond effectively to the real world, it's going to pile one disaster on another.

Obama clearly recognized this problem -- a government adrift in a revolutionary age, with all its constituent parts hardwired to stay that way -- and set out to change it.

But there was never going to be a revolution. Obama ran on change, but he also made clear that he is a centrist and an institutionalist. He believes in making things work, in practical results -- not in blowing things up and starting from scratch.

As a result, the poetry of the Obama campaign has been transformed into the software users manual of the Obama White House.

This is not to deride the software manual approach. Most of the work of actually reforming government is a) politically very, very hard and b) not especially inspiring or even interesting to the media or the public. That includes big stuff like guiding health care reform through Congress. Or lower-profile stuff like staffing scientific agencies with scientists rather than hacks. At every turn, there are obstacles large and small that have been in place for decades and can't easily be dislodged.

So I'm willing to cut Obama some slack. I think his approach is substantive where those of some of his immediate predecessors were variously incremental, empty or dangerous.

But Obama's problems are more than merely rhetorical. (Tom Friedman's suggestion for a lofty thematic fix, "Nation Building at Home," even if basically correct, was politically suicidal as slogans go.) I'm still wondering: Can someone who is temperamentally conservative and pragmatic, and who clearly doesn't relish political combat, ever make truly revolutionary changes? Or in our system, is this the only kind of president who can? That's the riddle we're all facing right now.

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