Gary Younge Guardian/UK 23 February 2014
A few days after John F Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson sat in his kitchen with his key advisers working his first speech to Congress. It was the evening of Kennedy's funeral – Johnson was now president. The nation was still in grief and Johnson, writes Robert Caro in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, was not yet able to move into the White House because Kennedy's effects were still there.
There was plenty of business to attend to. Johnson's advisers were keen that he introduced himself to the nation as a president who could get things done. For that reason, writes Caro, they implored him not to push for civil rights in this first speech, since it had no chance of passing. "The presidency has only a certain amount of coinage to expend, and you oughtn't to expend it on this," said "one of the wise, practical people around the table". Johnson, who sat in silence at the table as his aides debated, interjected: "Well, what the hell's the presidency for."
"First," he told Congress a few days later, "no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long." Over the next five years he would sign the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, launch the war on poverty and introduce Medicaid for low-income families and Medicare for seniors. That's what his presidency was for.
Barack Obama has now been in power for longer than Johnson was, and the question remains: "What the hell's his presidency for?" His second term has been characterised by a profound sense of drift in principle and policy. If there was a plot, he's lost it. If there was a point, few can remember it. If he had a big idea, he shrank it. If there's a moral compass powerful enough to guide such contradictions to more consistent waters, it is in urgent need of being reset. Given the barriers to democratic engagement and progressive change in America – gerrymandering, big money and Senate vetoes – we should always be wary of expecting too much from a system designed to deliver precious little to the poor. We should also challenge the illusion that any individual can single-handedly produce progressive change in the absence of a mass movement that can both drive and sustain it.
It was obvious what his election was for. First, preventing the alternative: presidential candidates in the grip of a deeply dysfunctional and reactionary party. His arrival marked a respite from eight years of international isolation, military excess and economic collapse. He stood against fear, exclusion and greed – and won. Second, it helped cohere and mobilise a new progressive coalition that is transforming the electoral landscape. Finally, it proved that despite the country's recent history Americans could elect a black man to its highest office.
So his ascent to power had meaning. It's his presence in power that lacks purpose. The gap between rich and poor and black and white has grown while he's been in the White House, the prospects for immigration reform remain remote, bankers made away with the loot, and Guantánamo's still open. It's true there's a limit to what a president can do about much of this and that Republican intransigence has not helped. But that makes the original question more salient not less: if he can't reunite a divided political culture, which was one of his key pledges, and his powers are that limited, then what is the point of his presidency?
All in all, there's precious little that Obama has done that any of his primary opponents would not have done. Occasionally, he either gives a lead – like after the shootings at Newtown when he advocated for gun control – or follows one, as in his support for gay marriage or preventing the deportation of young undocumented immigrants, which helps to set a tone. But these interventions are too rare to constitute a narrative.
"If you're going to be president, then I guess you obviously want to be in the history books," said Susan Aylward, a frustrated Obama supporter in Akron, Ohio, shortly before the last election. "So what does he want to be in the history books for? I don't quite know the answer to that yet." Sadly, it seems, neither does he. [Abridged]
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