Expectations always lead to attachment, and attachment, the Buddha tells us, leads to suffering. So it is with the faith we put in the man who we expected to be a new kind of president, one who was deliberative and thoughtful, who we thought was compassionate and fair. Indeed, he often exhibits those qualities, personally.
However, his inability to implement them into a Great Society or New Deal kind of policy, which is what, I think, most of us hoped for when we rallied to him in 2008, means we are left with squandered opportunity. I don’t know if I’ll ever be as excited about another presidential candidate in my lifetime as I was about Barack Obama.
The good news is, we can do something about our collective disappointment, but I’ll get to that a little later.
Granted, it hasn’t all been his fault. For most of his presidency, he has had a recalcitrant congress, and even meaningful bills that made it through the House, like the DREAM Act, died in filibusters on the Senate floor.
He has been more political in his calculus than I believe most of us thought he would be, especially since he lost the House and a filibuster-proof Senate in 2010. That loss is directly attributable to the agonizing effort it took to pass the Affordable Care Act, and the unwillingness of congressional Democrats to do anything too risky before Obama’s first midterm, even though they could have easily passed it. Issues like gun control, minimum wage, raising revenue, marriage equality and immigration reform sat on the back burner because Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi were afraid of the electoral consequences if they took them up.
Even passing Obama’s stimulus package, to help us out of the Great Recession, which should have been a no-brainer for Democrats, was like pulling teeth, and ended up being hamstrung because of Obama’s compulsion to make it more bipartisan.
It reminds me of a key strategy of backgammon that someone once imparted: if you are in a position to bear off your pieces, don’t fuck around incrementally moving them into better position; just move them off. Why? Because you never know how good your opponent’s next roll will be. You know, like the Republicans did under George W. Bush, when they had the White House and both Houses of Congress, they passed huge tax cuts. Twice.
So here we sit, with immigration reform punted, an unsympathetic farm bill that cut billions from nutritional assistance programs, no cost-of-living adjustment to the minimum wage, and on the eve of another round of prolonged military action in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
I firmly believe that if the president had gotten more done to help people in the first two years of his administration, he wouldn’t be so far underwater in his latest poll numbers, at real risk of losing Democratic control in Congress, and making it impossible to accomplish anything in his last two years.
That brings us to the reason attachment is suffering. By attaching our emotions to other people and circumstances, we come to depend on their power for our happiness. You don’t have to be a Wayne Dyer fan to get that in a relatively free society like ours, the only person in control of your happiness is the one you see in the mirror every morning. (I’ve gotten flack for statements like that before. I realize that real, daily subjugation and control by an authoritarian figure or a tragic circumstance of life is impossible for many to overcome. That isn’t the kind of suppressed determination I mean.)
I, for one, am not resigned to the inevitability of a failed presidency from the man who promised hope. I am not resigned that the best I can say about President Obama’s tenure is he obviously tried. As Yoda said, “Try not. Do or do not. There is no ‘try.'”
I may be detaching from my expectations of Obama, but I am far from disengaged from the possibility of a government committed to the progressive values I believe in. The government’s gridlock has no chain around my legs, no muzzle on my mouth. I remain committed to getting voters registered and getting them to the polls for the upcoming midterm elections. It’s something I can do for my state and my country.
If you think about it, that is what President Obama has been asking us to do all along: be engaged. His numerous policy tours – over jobs, minimum wage and pay equity, to name a few – were meant to rally the troops, get us to create a critical mass by contacting our representatives in Congress, to get them to do the right thing.
I don’t think we need the president to tell us once again, “Don’t boo. Vote!” Even if it is he who is being jeered, I think Obama would say the same thing. “Don’t boo. Vote!”
Your vote is your voice, louder than all the special interest money in the world, and together we can reach a conventional wisdom shattering crescendo, but we have to show up.
“I’m so proud,” Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and State Sen. Jason Carter told a voter registration rally in Atlanta, Monday, “to be on the side that says, ‘If more people vote, we win.'”
Register. Vote. Win. It’s something you can do, without waiting for Washington. Besides, it’s your duty as an American.