The grandson of a slave, historian John Hope Franklin lived long enough to see a black man elected president, a prospect that for most of his 94 years seemed impossible. He recalled in an NPR interview on his 90th birthday how, when his mother urged him to aspire to become the first African-American president, just saying the words seemed so daring. His seminal work, "From Slavery to Freedom," published in 1947, sold 6 million copies and remains relevant more than 60 years later. "Little by little, chip by chip, you can change things, and I'm willing to keep on trying," he told NPR.
Like Franklin, whose passing he mourned this week, President Obama thinks if you stick with something long enough, there will eventually be a payoff. "I'm a big believer in persistence," he said at his prime-time press conference Tuesday evening, telling reporters they should expect him to invoke this prized characteristic often during his presidency. A nation starved for leadership on a whole range of domestic priorities wants Obama to succeed, giving him a 64 percent approval rating in the latest Gallup poll. The number of Americans who say the country is headed in the right direction is steadily moving upward, and, according to pollster John Zogby, is at 45 percent, up from 14 percent at the beginning of the year.
Watching the cable-news commentators assess the president's performance immediately after the press conference, you get the impression Obama is on much shakier ground than the polls indicate. His tart response to a CNN reporter questioning the lag time between news of the AIG bonuses and the outrage he subsequently expressed prompted endless speculation about what this momentary flash of anger might mean, with Republican Bill Bennett calling it the first glimpse of someone who could be a one-term president. It's a familiar argument: Obama is on his way to being another Jimmy Carter, trying to do too much, overloading the circuits, choking the Congress. Democrats facing a wall of Republican opposition, as well as doubts within their own ranks, worry that this long-awaited moment to legislate will be squandered. "I'm on their side," says Brookings scholar Bill Galston, "but there's a point where more becomes less, and if you overreach you underperform."
Rhetorically at least, Obama is pressing ahead on all fronts despite calls from a growing group of centrists in his own party to pare back his vision. Voters who backed Obama's call for change can't understand why Democrats with big majorities in both houses of Congress can't pass Obama's signature items without getting into a snit over attracting Republican support. The reality is 58 senators aren't enough to forestall a filibuster. Forget the Republicans. Obama can't hold all the Democrats. The White House has adopted a strategy of welcoming the budget adopted by Congress as a victory for Obama, even though it scraps several presidential initiatives, including the extension beyond two years of Obama's middle-class tax cut and the cap-and-trade energy policy that would have paid for it. Both were a stretch given the economic climate.
With the pent-up needs of a nation coming to a head with the Obama presidency, the performance of Congress will be scrutinized along with Obama's. The controversy over the AIG bonuses and the lax oversight of the financial industry has once again thrust the influence of campaign contributions into the spotlight. With politicians on the defensive, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday introduced "Fair Elections Now" bills to have candidates voluntarily agree to not take lobbyist money and to accept only small contributions from their home states. "Law & Order" actor Sam Waterston was on hand to lend his celebrity authority to the cause. Reminded of the failure of past efforts to reform campaign fundraising, Waterston told NEWSWEEK he is hopeful this time is different. Reform has been tried in several states, including Connecticut, where he lives, and has proved successful. Plus, it's a quality-of-life issue for lawmakers, he said. "They want to get off the fundraising treadmill … They spend more time as telemarketers than legislators."
Waterston was involved last year in "Unity '08," a short-lived attempt to draft a bipartisan presidential ticket. It fell by the wayside when Obama emerged, satisfying the group's criterion for a different kind of leadership. He recalled traveling to Washington 15 years ago to attend a bipartisan congressional retreat in Hershey, Pa., where he portrayed Lincoln. Members of Congress told him then that they didn't talk to their colleagues because every free minute they have, they go raise money somewhere. Asked if lawmakers embracing reform legislation on the heels of the AIG scandal isn't a bit opportunistic, he pointed out that advocates like him have been at it for a long time. In politics, persistence can be its own reward, creating a momentum that challenges and then defines change in a way that eventually seems inevitable.