Leading From Below
He added the words in one of the later drafts. The announcement speech had been missing something, a direct response to the creeping cynicism of the previous decade. Why would this time be any different? What was so special about this political novice, that he thought he could solve all of these intractable problems on his own?
“That is why this campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us—it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice—to push us forward when we’re doing right, and to let us know when we’re not. This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.”
Much has been written over the last few weeks about the limits of presidential power. Some smart observers have pointed out that these limits are not new; that historically they have had less to do with the personalities of our leaders than the structure of our democracy. The founders, reluctant to entrust any executive with the kind of authority that was so abused by the king they revolted against, created a separation of powers between co-equal branches of government.
But how boring is that? The more exciting story to tell is how Lyndon Johnson charmed and strong-armed his way to massive legislative victories. Much less interesting is the fact that most of those victories occurred while his party held record majorities in Congress. By the end of his second term, following the loss of 47 House seats and three Senate seats, one aide joked that Johnson couldn’t even get a Mother’s Day resolution passed.
Today, a minority of senators can kill bipartisan legislation that is supported by a majority of their colleagues. And they frequently do. In the House, the speaker alone can kill bipartisan legislation that is supported by a majority of his colleagues. And he frequently does. Following some of this country’s worst mass shootings, a Republican senator and a Democratic senator with A ratings from the National Rifle Association authored a gun safety bill requiring criminal background checks that was supported by 90 percent of the American people. If I were a reporter, I’d be more interested in what was wrong with the Congress that refused to pass that bill than the man at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue who relentlessly campaigned for it at more than a dozen events around the country.
But that’s just me. This Congress has so profoundly disappointed the American people that I suppose the real news would be if they ever did anything that even remotely reflected popular will. At this point, getting angry with Congress for failing to legislate seems as useful as yelling at a puppy for peeing on the floor: neither of them knows any better.
This president has played plenty of hardball and softball with members of Congress. I was there when he cut deals and cajoled his way to a health-care victory that 100 years’ worth of Democratic and Republican presidents had sought and failed to achieve. I saw him do the same with the recovery act, and student-loan reform, and Wall Street reform, and “don’t ask, don’t tell”—a legislative legacy that, whether you agree with it or not, already stands tall against any other president’s in recent memory.
I’ve also seen what happens to Republicans who dare to even contemplate cooperation with the White House. When Congressman Scott Rigell of Virginia accepted the president’s invitation to join him at an event highlighting the shipyard jobs that sequestration would destroy in his district, the two men had a warm and constructive conversation aboard Air Force One. The president talked about his willingness to pursue entitlement reform. Rigell said he was open to closing tax loopholes for the wealthy. In return, he was threatened with a primary challenge by his local Tea Party, attacked by Grover Norquist as a “cheap date,” and flooded with nasty calls and emails from conservative activists.
If you’re a Republican in Congress, what’s more likely to sway your vote—a trip on Air Force One and a personal plea from Barack Obama, or the threat of a Tea Party challenge that’s taken down so many of your colleagues in recent elections?
The commentariat has had plenty of advice for the president over the last few weeks about leadership, little of it helpful, realistic, or specific—unless you count Maureen Dowd’s incisive suggestion that the White House create charts with the names of congressmen whose votes they need, a sentence that was actually published in The New York Times.
But since the day he announced his run for the presidency, Obama has held a deep and abiding conviction about how change really happens. Yes, it requires leaders who can inspire, and compromise, and build relationships on both sides of the aisle. But it also requires us. It requires an engaged, active citizenry, willing to pressure and push our leaders in the right direction, not just on Election Day, but every day, through emails and phone calls and office visits and town-hall meetings.
I can’t be sure, but you know what I bet will stay with Sen. Kelly Ayotte more than any charm offensive or political threat from Obama? The statement she heard from the 27-year-old daughter of the Sandy Hook Elementary principal who was killed in the Newtown massacre: “You had mentioned that the burden to owners of gun stores that these expanded background checks would cause. I’m just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the hall of her elementary school isn’t as important as that.”
The president and the Congress are responsible for the decisions that this country makes or doesn’t make. But as citizens, so are we. We can complain about what’s happening in Washington for the next year, or the next four years, or the next 10 years, or we can do something about it. We can make sure that young woman’s voice isn’t lost in a cacophony of ads and lobbying and primary challenges. Whether or not we support this president’s agenda, we can rise to the challenge he laid out on the night of his reelection:
“The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded upon.”
As we’ve seen over the past few months, it’s a tough job. But we all have to do it.