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Other View: Obama's biggest failing was a lack of ambition

Nobody thinks Margaret Thatcher’s claim on posterity is that she was Britain’s first female prime minister. Admirers and critics alike know she was more consequential than that. Barack Obama was America’s first black president, which is a huge thing and a fine thing. But when you’ve said that, you’ve probably said what matters most about his time in office.

Perhaps it was harder — less probable — for a black man with little experience of government to be elected president of the U.S. in 2008 than it was for a woman to lead the British Conservative Party to electoral victory in 1979. Obama’s rise to the presidency was a remarkable accomplishment. Talk about audacity. But reflecting on his eight years in office, one wonders how much ambition he had left after that.

He doubtless wanted to succeed, and he did, in some ways. Not least, he won re-election in 2012 and departs the White House with most voters thinking well of him. But already in 2008 he could say and think, “Yes we did.” Nothing he achieved afterward eclipses that. Thatcher, in contrast, betrayed little or no interest in defeating a prejudice about what women could aspire to be. She wanted power because she believed it was necessary to transform Britain, and nobody else was up to the job. For good or ill, transform Britain is what she did.

A prime minister with a comfortable majority in Parliament has more power to change Britain than any president has to change the U.S. No checks and balances to deal with. Yet you could argue that Ronald Reagan managed it. Obama, you could also argue, might have managed it too, had he tried. The occasion presented itself in the form of an economic crisis. Leaders subsequently deemed great usually find themselves contending with a crisis, domestic or foreign, sometimes of their own making. But Obama let his particular crisis go to waste.

In every case, Obama has good excuses. In foreign policy, he followed a president whose own bid for greatness, the war on Iraq, ended in catastrophe. An unassertive foreign policy, if not outright disengagement, is what many Americans wanted from the new president. Obama soon recognized the limits of that approach, but he was stuck with the country’s suspicion of forceful leadership in global affairs.

In domestic policy, Obama had to cope with a Congress crippled by polarization. Republicans were soon in a position to block every legislative initiative, and did so remorselessly. Obamacare was a centrist initiative, but Congress no longer had a center to get behind it. It passed without a single Republican vote, and despite the reservations of many leftist Democrats. It was a narrowly partisan victory that failed to impress even the winners.

Far-reaching reform requires consensus; lacking consensus, it fails to stick. Obama thought the ACA would create a consensus all by itself, after the fact. So far, it hasn’t.

Many politicians make the mistake of thinking that consensus requires timidity. Thatcher was abrasive and radical, and aroused ferocious opposition — but her assault on a trade-union movement run amok commanded wide support. Thatcherism moved the center of British politics to the right, and the shift persisted. Subsequent Labour and Tory governments have nestled closely together in this repositioned middle. Thatcher changed Britain by changing British politics.

Could Obama have aspired to something similar in the U.S. — repopulating the political center and aligning it leftward, behind a new New Deal built on American capitalism but addressed to growing inequality and diminished economic security?

In 2008, it seemed possible. The new president was a man of enormous talent, effortlessly commanding respect, an enthralling speaker, calm, sober and instantly likable. He’d come up from nothing, and by the way, he was black. He was something entirely new, yet quintessentially American. The country, it seemed, was proud of him and proud of itself for having produced him. The politically uncommitted wanted him to succeed, and despite later controversies and disappointments this never really changed.

It would be wrong to say he squandered these assets, but he took no chances with them. You don’t realign politics by tending exclusively to the hopes and ideas of your partisan followers. That’s what he did. As president, Obama was most comfortable preaching to the converted.

He rarely challenged the left, or spoke to the movable center of the electorate on terms of full understanding and respect. When it came to selling Obamacare, for instance, he was strangely passive. His characteristic approach was to apologize to Democrats for compromises fashioned elsewhere — regrettable compromises, required by practical politics — while expressing empathy for the benighted and unconvinced, clinging to their mistaken beliefs for perfectly understandable reasons. This approach is guaranteed to change nobody’s mind.

Read his farewell address. It was a good speech, like almost all his speeches. But it was addressed mostly to his supporters — “Yes we did” — not to America. Obama accepted the country’s political divisions as given, and risked nothing on changing them.

Compounding the problem, he had no taste for transactional politics. He entrenched polarization by choosing not to elicit latent demand for a new center, yet was disdainful of the tawdry deal-making that this lack of ambition made necessary. Grand political realignment was not his thing. Cutting deals, better left to other people, was not his thing either.

Great leadership — more precisely, the desire to be a great leader — can be dangerous. Let’s hope Donald Trump is more interested in the long-term value of his brands than his place in history. Remember, too, that Thatcher could easily have been a great failure: She bet her premiership and the lives of many soldiers and sailors on a stupid war with Argentina, a reckless venture that on any rational analysis was likely to fail. She had to be outrageously lucky as well as ambitious. Don’t be too quick to blame Obama for his caution.

And yet it’s disappointing. America’s polarization and the deep political dysfunction that flows from it are themselves a kind of crisis. Now they’ve yielded President Trump — and who knows what harm will flow from that? If Obama had been willing to think big and take risks — not just before getting elected but afterward as well — things might have been different. But Obama wasn’t that man.


Columns
OTHER VIEW
Reader Comment: Sen. Hartog celebrates school choice

I am so grateful to live in a state where families have the option to choose the school that best fits their child’s educational needs. I have always believed that inspiring and equipping the next generation of creators and innovators begins with a quality educational system where families have options and opportunities.

Choosing a school that provides the right learning environment for your child is a personal experience. As a mother of three children, I know first-hand how every child has unique challenges, learning styles, talents and interests. Which is why Idaho families should have the ability to be actively involved in choosing their children’s education, whether that be in public schools, public charter schools, private schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, religious schools, or homeschools.

National School Choice Week (Jan. 22-28) is the largest annual celebration opportunity in education. The purpose is to bring more awareness to school choice and educational opportunity in Idaho. Many families in Idaho have the freedom to choose the best educational environment for their children. Currently, 1 in 5 Idaho students are enrolled in educational choice options, including charter, private, magnet and homeschooling. As much as Idaho has grown with educational choices, there are still many school districts in Idaho that don’t have options available to them.

On Monday, Jan. 23, students, parents, teachers and community leaders representing multiple school choice options will gather at the Idaho Capitol to raise awareness of the benefits of school choice in Idaho. They will occupy the first-floor rotunda of the Capitol all day Monday. This is your opportunity to celebrate Educational Choice and share the importance of continued support for Idaho’s educational choice programs. School Choice Day at the Capitol is also a fun and educational way to introduce students to the structure of state government, the legislative process and meet their local legislators. Guided tours may be scheduled for students third grade or higher. For more information, go to schoolchoiceweek.com.

It is up to us to advocate for a quality educational system and promote a culture of innovation and creativity where every child has access to educational choices and a high-quality education. One size does not fit all when it comes to Idaho’s education system. So gather your students and take advantage of this incredible opportunity to share the importance of educational choice in Idaho during National School Choice Week, Jan. 22-28.


Columns
OTHER VIEW
Other View: President Obama's dignity is an enduring legacy

The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:Posterity will pass fuller and fairer judgment on the presidency of Barack Obama than is possible today, but on one issue the verdict is already clear: personal integrity. In an especially hostile political environment, Obama was civil and decent, and he served with honor and dignity. Partisanship should not prevent Republicans from acknowledging these truths.

Like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama leaves the White House untarred by scandal. His administration was almost entirely free from corruption, and there was never any credible allegation that he used his office to enrich himself or his friends. Even his most strident critics must admit that he is a straight arrow.

That’s not something to take for granted. An honest leader is essential not only to the functioning of democracy, but also to the public’s faith in it. A president who lies can weaken public trust in government institutions, as Richard Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate break-in demonstrated.

It’s unfortunate that Obama was never able to use his personal integrity to transcend the partisan rancor in Washington, and indeed, his penchant for attacking Republicans made it worse. Nevertheless, he stayed within the bounds of civil discourse and traditional decorum.

It’s imperative that the public hold the next occupant of the office to the highest ethical standards. President-elect Donald Trump’s refusal to more fully disengage from his company — merely handing it over to his sons does not pass muster — is unacceptable. If he fails to reverse this decision, he risks dragging the country into a legal battle that could test the Constitution.

Trump has rarely shied away from a fight. But when he becomes president, more than his fortune and reputation will be at stake. If he insists on holding onto his company, Congress should insist it be led and overseen by people from outside the Trump family.

The U.S. faces many challenges at home and around the world. Obama ensured that the whiff of corruption, which can be a major distraction for a president, never approached 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The public should expect no less.