Some might think that Obama suffers from the perception that he’s contributed to Washington’s partisan deadlock. However, the president’s problem is not that he’s been too partisan. Instead, his mistake is that he hasn’t been partisan enough. Americans bear a secret love for partisanship, because we recognize in political struggle the thing we really crave: moral leadership.
To be sure, partisanship has gotten a bad rap in a year when the government almost shut down over the question of whether or not to put out fires. Each day seems to bring fresh evidence that our congressional representatives are being turned to stone by aggressive gerrymandering and radical primaries.
Nevertheless, these challenges can only be solved by a leader, someone with conviction and a clear vision of how things should be done. These leaders are partisan by nature, for they hold earnest beliefs that they are reluctant to compromise.
In fact, Congress could be said to suffer from insufficient leadership rather than excessive partisanship. One of the most astounding innovations of August’s debt deal was the legislature’s creation of the Super Committee, a bipartisan commission of Senators and congressmen whose nominal purpose is to identify deficit reduction measures over the next ten years. In reality, the Super Committee seems to have more to do with letting rank-and-file legislators avoid personal responsibility.
Throughout America’s history, partisan leaders have worked enormous social good in two main ways. First, principled disagreement amongst America’s leaders can yield the sort of powerful compromise that combines the best of clashing worldviews while weeding out weird ideas that can’t survive in daylight. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the House New Gingrich crafted a balanced government that neither would have arrived at on their own.
Second, and more frequently, a political leader of great passion will lead or drag the country to a grand undertaking. President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs could hardly have been carried through by a less domineering character. Under Johnson, Congress passed the Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, as well as the Social Security Act of 1965, which launched Medicare and later Medicaid.
Across the aisle, President Ronald Reagan sports the most enduring legacy of an American president in the last half-century. He was above all a dynamic figure, dashing President Jimmy Carter's "crisis of confidence" as well as his presidency.
Against this backdrop of partisan presidents, Obama rose to the presidency in large part because of his post-partisan image. With a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, he was able to tell a story that was and remains uniquely American. As a result, he spoke on our behalf with an ease few politicians had managed in several long, fraught years.
Today, Obama’s administration has been bruised by his attempts to protect his post-partisan image. The White House seemed to work hard to stand aloof from congressional bickering, only to be widely criticized by liberals for letting the Tea Party eat its lunch.
It’s clear partisanship isn’t going anywhere just because the president is trying to stand above it, and that’s to be expected. Although Americans say we want to live in a post-partisan world, a technocratic world, we really don’t. Instead, we have always wanted strong leadership, and in politics leaders fight.
In his assessment of Obama’s reelection chances, Nate Silver seems inclined to give the president even odds, save for one thing: Rick Perry has collapsed in the polls, and so Mitt Romney, the moderate candidate, is the likely Republican nominee. Yet, Romney seems to be exactly the kind of moderate that everyone can do without. Obama still has the edge, if he fights hard enough.
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