When Hope Meets Reality

"We campaign in poetry. But when we're elected we're forced to govern in prose," said Mario Cuomo, then-governor of New York, in a 1985 speech. "And when we govern -- as distinguished from when we campaign -- we come to understand the difference between a speech and a statute. It's here that the noble aspirations, neat promises and slogans of a campaign get bent out of recognition or even break as you try to nail them down to the Procrustean bed of reality."

The man then hailed as the Democratic Party's greatest orator knew what he was talking about. And there is no doubt that the party's current lead orator, Barack Obama, has understood this truth all along. But those swept up in the oratory still seem to need occasional reminding of this reality. As health-care reform teeters between success and failure, the economy limps along, and more and more Americans wonder what we're doing in Afghanistan, the prose of governing is more than a little unsettling for some.

The disparity is even more noticeable if the campaign that brought you to office was particularly poetic and the dismay of voters won over is particularly acute. Campaigns have a kind of purity that governing can never match. When a presidency is merely hypothetical, it can do anything -- turn foes into allies, solve one knotty problem after another, bring about a future where failure and despair are nothing but fading memories. There's a reason why romantic movies all end when the couple finally gets together. The courtship is the period of uncertainty, of intensity, of optimism. The marriage isn't quite as dramatic, and it involves compromise and work.

And the glory of Obama's campaign was something that most of us will probably not see again. Everything about it -- the excitement of breaking down the racial barrier, the way Obama seemed to embody every personal quality George W. Bush lacked, the way he and his campaign made you feel you were part of something momentous and historic -- conspired to fill Americans with an almost absurd degree of hope. (If you need a reminder, watch Obama's Iowa caucus speech, perhaps the best of his campaign.)

The result of the disconnect between campaigning and governing is that the ordinary roadblocks of politics are becoming unusually painful for Obama's supporters. And it doesn't help that the punditocracy's chin-scratchers now behave as though it's a failure that Obama is not actually omnipotent. For example, the idea that Obama could have dropped a handful of hope-infused pixie dust on the weak Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey was ridiculous, but that didn't stop some election-watchers from suggesting such a magic fix were possible. Noting that the president wasn't able to pull John Corzine and Criegh Deeds to victory by delivering a couple of speeches, The New York Times' Peter Baker recently asked, "Has Mr. Obama lost his oratorical touch?"

You have to give the Obama folks credit for at least attempting to turn their campaign machinery into a permanent agenda-promoting tool. Obama for America became Organizing for America, now a subsidiary of the Democratic National Committee. OFA recently showed Talking Points Memo a series of statistics on the number of calls and letters it has generated in support of health-care reform, demonstrating that its efforts have a real impact. On paper the effect seems impressive enough. But we seldom hear about it, since the media have been much more interested in roving bands of hysterical tea partiers than those advocating for actual policy reform (you'll recall the old news axiom, "If it screams about Hitler, it leads").

Meanwhile, the young people so inspired by the Obama campaign seem to have returned to their normal daily lives. To take just one example, turnout among voters under 30 in Virginia was 58.7 percent in 2008, a 15-point increase from four years prior. But youth turnout in the state's gubernatorial election this year was only 17 percent. Meanwhile, some like Jose Antonio Vargas at The Huffington Post have argued that the administration hasn't bothered to engage young people like the way the campaign did.

But it isn't just about youth; it's about everyone who was moved by what will probably end up being the most inspiring presidential campaign of their lifetime. If the Obama campaign didn't necessarily create millions of permanent activists, filling their days with letter-writing and door-knocking, we shouldn't be surprised. For better or worse, nothing can match the urgency and collective engagement of a presidential race. Health-care reform may well pass, but if and when it does, Americans won't embrace each other with tears streaming down their faces in quite the same way they did when Obama's victory was announced.

That's due in no small part to all the compromises that have already been made (and there may be more to come). The challenge for the president's supporters is to figure out which compromises are simply the necessary evils of governing, and which are unacceptable betrayals of the goals and principles Obama is supposed to share with those who voted for him. Getting elected is never the point -- the point is to accomplish a particular set of objectives.

The administration's achievements, however considerable they turn out to be, will not put a simultaneous catch in millions of throats. But if it's any consolation for Obama, presidencies ultimately become more defined by their rhetoric the further back they move into history. What comes to mind when you think about John F. Kennedy? Chances are it's his Inaugural Address ("Ask not ... "). When we think of Franklin D. Roosevelt, we remember his rhetorical touchstones -- "nothing to fear but fear itself," "a day that will live in infamy" -- and his fireside chats. And it isn't just Democrats -- Republicans have elevated Ronald Reagan's 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, where he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!", to a kind of magical incantation that almost literally sent the concrete crumbling (the subtitle of one book by an admirer breathlessly calls it "The Speech That Ended the Cold War").

Two years or so from now, when he starts campaigning for re-election in earnest, Obama will attempt to re-create those stirring feelings that got him to the White House. And we'll want him to, because we want once again to feel that uplift, that energy, that possibility. It won't be quite the same, though. After spending a few years mired in the prose of governing, the poetry may not move us quite so much.

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