Watching President Barack Obama on TV the other day, it occurred to me that post-Obama America has some interesting lessons for political scientists, or indeed for anyone even mildly curious about American politics.
For starters, we have seen with Obama how the cold hard realities of governance can bring down even the most feel-good and supposedly, inspirational movements.
Obama set himself up to be the very antithesis of George. W. Bush and to usher in a new era of governance brimming with accountability and transparency and a desire to remake the United States’ image.
But once the post-election euphoria had died down and Obama got down to the business of governing, he clearly discovered a few things that changed his mind.
As many political commentators have already pointed out, President Obama in many respects has become exactly like his predecessor especially in the war on terror and in the realm of civil liberties.
Indeed many of the very things he accused Bush of doing- for example denying suspects habeas corpus rights, escalating the wars abroad and violating civil rights of Americans-are the things he has replicated.
One of the key lessons you can take from this is it is so much easier to govern from the sidelines, but it is an entirely different thing to govern once you actually have the power you were striving for.
Instead of being a government with a difference, Obama has created a Government of continuity. Obama obviously does not want to draw attention to the fact that he has pursued many of the Bush policies that he was so vigorously against before he was elected.
As a result, he is forced to maintain the fiction of being the President who has overhauled the Bush policies, while in reality he has kept many of them. So often, politics is little more than a dazzling series of magic tricks.
And on the other hand, we have the Republicans whose governance mode so far has been to become the ‘party of no’ as one person put it. They have set out to block Obama on just about every front, be it health care reform, the stimulus package or financial reform.
Even the BP oil spill has given them the opportunity to effectively side with the petroleum company and accuse Obama of harassing them as part of his anti-capitalist agenda.
Recently we had the curious spectacle of a Republican politician apologizing to BP for everything they had been put through.
Obviously political parties are often in disagreement with their rivals. However, Republican obstructionism often comes across as opposition for its’ own sake.
They hardly ever propose their own solutions. This kind of approach may win you easy points from their base of support, but this will handicap them should they get into power.
They have become so used to empty opposition with no creative solutions that they may soon forget what governance should really be like. It is the worst possible preparation for taking power themselves.
They have forgotten one of the cardinal rules of politics and governance- be prepared to compromise.
Obama appears to have discovered the mundane truths of governance do not really gel very well with his ‘hope and change’ rhetoric, and he has found himself emulating his hated predecessor in ways that should make many uncomfortable.
In that sense, he has wandered away from what made him such an appealing politician in the first place.
The Republicans on the other hand are now opposing everything from the Government almost as a reflex action. Neither approach reflects well on the protagonists.