In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower ran on a simple message: time for a change. Euphoria over defeating Germany and Japan had given way to economic anxiety, concern over a growing Soviet threat and strong opposition to a war in Korean that the General promised to end. Helping his cause was Harry Truman’s meager 22% approval rating and the voters having come to believe two decades of uninterrupted Democratic rule was enough. When Barack Obama brought his message of change in 2008, Republicans had also held the presidency for all but eight of the previous twenty-eight years. So, too, were we engaged in at least one very unpopular war and George Bush’s approval ratings stood only in the mid-30s. Even more telling, 81% of us felt the country was on the wrong track.
So, while every time is different, there were clearly enough similarities between 1952 and 2008 to account for the same change call. Markedly different, however, was what the respective campaigns asked of the voters. In ’52 the GOP had a familiar war hero as its standard bearer and, the change message notwithstanding, voters were asked little more than to remember they liked Ike. In contrast, Barack Obama was still introducing himself — a totally new and untested leader. While a majority of Americans seemed to like him, that was hardly enough. So Obama’s message of change carried with it a call for the public’s help. After telling them he believed we can change, the Senator asked his audiences if they (and the country) were up to the challenge. Their answer came in three simple words, yes we can. That they responded in that hopeful way and believed it so totally may explain why the now elected President’s approval rating has fallen to 44% in the August 26th Rasmussen tracking poll and why the Democrats face such a difficult mid-term election. Yes we can? At this point, we’re not as sure as was the case in those heady days of ‘08.
We Americans are an impatient lot. Long before 24/7 news, the Internet and Twitter we, in contrast for example to our friends in China, demanded, and came to expect, instant solutions. To us a long view was weeks and months not years and decades. Had Korea not ended the summer after Ike’s inauguration he too might have faced some buyers’ disappointment, if not remorse. We are impatient and we can be unforgiving, sometimes acting more like sulky teenagers than adults. Moreover, we seem to suffer from a kind of collective early Alzheimer’s, romantically remembering the good old days, but drawing a complete mental blank on what actually happened just yesterday.
It is true that Senator Obama always coupled his message with a cautionary note, change…won’t come easy, but yes we can was any rally’s ultimate takeaway. It is a promise that sets an enormously high performance bar, especially in an instant gratification imbued society. Yes we can glosses over the natural complexities of governess, and more so the grim reality that faced this administration in January 2009. It is a truism to say that campaigning is far easier than governing, but in some ways the nature of our particular democracy — the need to glibly appeal for votes — makes that almost a self fulfilling prophecy. Truth is, Obama has probably kept more campaign promises than most of his predecessors, but it seems not to matter. In these times, the yes we can promise was unfulfillable in the short term, even if everything had gone his way, and for sure it didn’t.
Perhaps in retrospect the President wishes his campaign had not come up with that powerful rhetorical flourish, but instead had given even greater voice to the won’t come easy part. I’d bet it's crossed his intellectual mind, but then he might not have been elected. Regardless, twenty months after the inauguration, yes we can rings less plausible as we watch unemployment numbers rise and housing sales fall. We’re all less sure of ourselves and polls suggest, at least for the present, that the country is measurably less sure of him.
Republicans are angry and many Democrats are disappointed. In a super partisan milieu the angry part is understandable. The disappointment may be less so. For starters, while we may not be happy with some of the compromises that have been made to pass legislation, its worth repeating that the President has delivered on his promises. That healthcare reform won’t take instantaneous effect is nothing new — Medicare was passed in 1965 and came into being only in 1967. It takes time to implement change, especially in what has become a complicated and largely broken system. So our disappointment only evidences that unrealistic American impatience. More to point, and certainly not letting Obama off the hook, some of our disappointment should be self-directed. We all stood there shouting yes we can or putting it on our car's bumper stickers. We didn’t say yes he can, but we can. That implies taking some responsibility. If he has fallen short, so have we.
The Tea Party people (with a big help from Koch money) are organizing. The Republicans are energized. Many of Obama’s ’08 supporters are just inertly looking out horrifid at a quickly reemerged conservatism, only more extreme then before. So where is our ideological tea party equivalent, the one in support of that change we said could happen? Where is our energy? Is one campaign all we have within us? Wringing our hands in disappointment won’t do the trick. John Boehner, in criticizing the President’s economic team, recently said it was time to put grown-ups in charge of the economy. Well, I won’t go there, but I do think it’s high time for the American electorate, and most especially all of us who supported Obama, including so many young people, shouting yes we can to begin acting like grown-ups.
The problems we face are serious and — aside from the very rich who seem to be living in their own self-absorbed fantasy — they touch virtually all Americans affluent, middleclass and poor. We can’t dismiss the anger that produces as irrational. It’s not. The outlook at times seems so dire that we understandably lose heart. But grown-ups do understand that there are sometimes more pits encountered in life than cherries. Change is hard, but no harder than life itself. Sure, yes we can may now ring as an unrealistic promise, but don’t you think it deserves a little more patience than we’ve given it? Don’t those who we put into office to accomplish change deserve our foul weather support? Most of us wouldn’t like to be President at his time, to have coming across our desk what he sees every day. The least we can do is begin by telling him that when we shouted yes we can, we meant it. That won’t solve our problems, but a little more follow through on our part is a decent start.