By Marcus Johnson
Politics. It’s almost a dirty word today. Poll after poll shows us how approval ratings in Washington keep plummeting; the media continues to tell us how Americans are displeased with the political system. Even the politicians themselves complain about “Washington Politics.” But do increasingly negative feelings about Congress and the President really mean the system is broken? Or are people simply displeased with their politicians?
I would say that even though most Americans have a competent understanding of what their political parties stand for, they don’t have that same kind of understanding for the political system as a whole; this misunderstanding of the political system can lead to some unrealistic expectations. The American political system is pluralistic and is designed to stifle change. Gerrymandering and increased polarization between parties has limited space for political moderates. Congressmen have to endure pressure from their home districts to get reelected, pressure from Congress to keep party platform, and pressure from the American people to work together and compromise. But how can Congress work together when we threaten to vote them out if they don’t do things the way we want?
Most Americans aren’t aware of political realities. As college students, sometimes we see the world how we want it to be, not knowing what it takes to get there. This couldn’t be any more true than in the 2008 presidential election. Barack Obama swept the nation off its feet with his charm and wit. He spoke to us about hope and change, about transforming the way things worked in Washington. He told us that we’d end the wars in the Middle East, and inspired millions to come out and vote for him under the assumption that he would tackle these goals and protect their interests. He was supposed to be a transcendent political figure. Three years in, what do we have to show for it? The reality of this situation is that we expected too much from Barack Obama. We placed all of our political hopes on him without stopping to think what obstacles he had to overcome to achieve them.
Barack Obama definitely stepped into the presidency during one of our nation’s toughest moments, but I would argue that despite the stifling nature of the political system, Obama is not a tragic figure. At the beginning of his first term, he had control of both the House and the Senate, yet Obama achieved none of the goals he promised during his campaign. So why, even in the best of conditions, couldn’t Obama deliver and get congress to work together? Besides the obvious answer that Congress is tough to work with, we have to take a serious look at Obama. There was a political window open to push his agenda and get bills through Congress with minimal opposition. And instead of taking the bull by the horns, Obama ceded to Republicans at every turn. The continual folding to the GOP created half-assed bills that weren’t good for anyone. It takes transcendent leaders to create real change and overcome this restraining political system. Lincoln presided during the tumultuous Civil War period; Roosevelt created the New Deal, Johnson the Civil Rights Act. Roosevelt’s tenure in particular created programs like the FDIC and Social Security, which stand to this day. Before Roosevelt, the federal government never intervened in the economy and its citizens were left to fend for themselves; his programs were controversial – many in Washington thought they were unconstitutional – but his political mastery gave him the ability to create the safety net that has now protected millions of Americans for almost a century. Most presidents can’t create real change; real change is a difficult goal for any leader to attain. It takes a leader that can transcend the political system and its constraining factors. And it is becoming clearer that Obama is not one of those leaders.
Despite the failure to deliver his campaign promises, it’s been interesting to watch the effects of Obama’s presidency. He’s spurned a number of different movements, the most famous being the Tea Party. Most people wouldn’t think that Barack started the Tea Party, but I would argue the opposite; the Tea Party is Conservative America’s direct response to a Black president. If John McCain or even Hilary Clinton had been elected, there would be no Tea Party. The Tea Party espouses that they aren’t racially motivated, that their movement is colorblind. But with callings like “We want our country back!”, can you really believe them? What exactly do they want our country to go back to? The ideological prominence and public support of the Tea Party is proof to me that we live in precisely the opposite of a “post-racial” society.
The Tea Party stands for all of the principles of the Old South–a small federal government, state’s rights, unchecked capitalism, and limited to no social programs. They have a general sense of disdain for minorities, and have stated that they wish to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment. Despite all this, they have garnered recognition as a serious political movement, and in 2010 helped dozens of politicians to be elected to Congress. Many believe that the Tea Party is now the driving force behind the Republican Party. Much like liberal college students were the most inspired voters in 2008, the Tea Party could be seen as the most motivated voting bloc for the 2012 elections.
The Tea Party is simultaneously the Republican Party’s biggest strength and their biggest weakness: they are motivated voters who energize their base, but they produce thoroughly unelectable national candidates. The Tea Party will win plenty of local and state elections because of motivated voters and gerrymandered districts, but the Tea Party hinders the Republican Party on a national level. To get the support of the Tea Party during the primaries, Republicans are forced to move further and further to the right. Former moderates like Texas governor Rick Perry are morphed into right wing extremists. Moderate republicans with a shot at the nomination – for example, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty – are the first candidates ushered out of the race. As candidates move further into extreme status, they also move further away from the White House. A Tea Party candidate is virtually unelectable in the general election, but because the Tea Party is driving the GOP, you won’t come out of the primaries unless you cater your rhetoric to them.
The United States’ federal debt has been a hot topic this past summer; everyone seems to have an opinion on it. But if this topic is so pressing, why has it just recently become a major issue? Where was the Tea Party when George Bush led out-of-control defense spending for eight years, or when Reagan spent so much the Soviet Union collapsed trying to compete? The U.S. debt issue is an illusion – it’s an “issue” created by the Tea Party to lower Obama’s approval rating. The U.S.’s current economic situation is actually more than favorable. The dollar is the global reserve currency, which means that there will always be a market for U.S. Dollars. As long as the United States holds global reserve status, we will be able to live beyond our means and spend indefinitely. The rest of the world currently has no other option than to continue to buy dollars. Cutting spending doesn’t help the economy or create jobs. If the economy grows when money is spent, how will it grow when money is purposefully withheld from the economy? How will cutting spending help any of the struggling Americans today?
The United States is facing some pretty daunting future problems. As their global influence declines, they continue to stretch their empire too far and fight battles in other nations that they can’t win. The country faces an economic recession that has decimated the middle class and left much of the nation’s wealth in the hands of a very few. A decade of failed policies have crippled the country’s world image and killed the high of Clinton’s ’90s – but there is still time for these problems to be reversed. There is still time for a transcendent leader to create real change in America, in both domestic and foreign policy. There is still time for politics to change America for the better. My question for Oberlin is: do you still believe Obama is the man for the job?
Political Realities is a reoccurring opinion column focusing on the unpopular truths about the current political climate.