Anna Quindlen: Assessing Barack Obama's Progress

From time to time the American people participate in a mass delusion about how their government works. Such a delusion took place exactly a year ago, when a 47-year-old African-American who had once been accorded little chance of prevailing was elected president of the United States.

History will judge Barack Obama over the long haul. But we've learned something in the short term that is simple, obvious, and has less to do with him than with the Founding Fathers. This is a country that often has transformational ambitions but is saddled with an incremental system, a nation built on revolution, then engineered so the revolutionary can rarely take hold.

Checks and balances: that's how we learn about it in social-studies class, and in theory it is meant to guard against a despotic executive, a wild-eyed legislature, an overweening judiciary. And it's also meant to safeguard the rights of the individual; as James Madison, president and father of the Constitution, once said, "I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations." But what our system has meant during the poisonous partisan civil war that has paralyzed Washington in recent years is that very little of the big stuff gets done. It simply can't.

This president promised to tackle the big stuff, swiftly, decisively, and in a fashion about which he was unequivocal, and voters took him at his word a year ago. For those who yearned for a progressive agenda that would change the playing field for the disenfranchised, he promised to do good. So far he has mainly done government, which overlaps with good too little in the Venn diagram of American public policy.

Universal health care is the area in which the gap between what's needed and what's likely is most glaring, and the limitations of the president's power most apparent. It is dispiriting to watch the cheerleaders of American exceptionalism pound their chests and insist that our citizens do not need the kind of system that virtually every other developed nation finds workable. (By the way, if you're confused about the public option, just ask yourself this question: would you like to be eligible for Medicare at 40 rather than 65?) As elected officials posture and temporize, families are bankrupted by health-care costs and forgo treatment they can't afford. Statistical measures of the national health, from life expectancy to infant mortality, continue to be substandard. And because we have that system of checks and balances, in which movement usually happens slowly and sporadically, a great need for sweeping reform may be met with a jury-rigged bill neither sufficiently deep nor broad, which perhaps someday will give way to a better one, and then eventually a truly good one.

All that is a far cry from the health-care agenda President Obama articulated during the campaign. But campaigns are bad crucibles in which to forge the future. They speak to great aspirations; government amounts to the dripping of water on stone. The president promised in January to close Guantánamo, the detention center, created in the wake of the terrorism attacks, that has become a symbol of disregard for due process. A laudable goal, easier said than done: with more than 200 detainees and a congressional ban on bringing any of them to the United States, the administration has been reduced to trying to persuade foreign governments to do what we're not willing to do ourselves. There's been no rush to help, although props to Bermuda, which took four Uighurs, members of an oppressed Muslim minority in China.

Another of the president's promises was to end the risible military policy called "don't ask, don't tell," a policy that has resulted in the loss to the armed forces of thousands of distinguished service members merely because they happen to be gay. When he addressed the Human Rights Campaign on the eve of the gay-equality march, President Obama noted that "progress may be taking longer than you'd like." That's because, some officials say, a change in the policy must suit the comfort level of military personnel. But if the Truman administration had waited for the acquiescence of the average enlisted man, it would never have integrated the armed forces. This is one where the president does not have to convince the posturing right wing of Congress, the one that invented the spurious notion of death panels in the health-care debate. Transformation is within his grasp, in a pen, a signature, an executive order.

Why has that not happened? One reason may be the president's essential character, which is at odds with the persona that developed during the campaign. Perhaps because of his race and his age, much of the electorate, especially those of us who are liberals, succumbed to stereotype and assumed that he was by way of being a firebrand. A year in, and we know that we deceived ourselves. He is methodical, thoughtful, cerebral, a believer in consensus and process. In an incremental system, Barack Obama is an incremental man. It is one reason he is taking his time ending the two wars in which we remain mired, Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding. On the one hand, on the other. This makes attacks on him as a radical or a socialist preposterous, not to mention ridiculously retro. (Can "Trotskyite" be far behind?) It has also dispirited progressives, whose heraldic emblem might well be the broad stroke. The president is a person of nuance. But on both ends of the political number line, nuance is seen as wishy-washy. There's no nuance in partisan attacks, soundbites, slogans, which is why Barack Obama didn't run with the lines "Some change you might like if you're willing to settle" or "Yes, we can, but it will take a while."

That's really how our government works, by inches. In our long history it seems that the decision to wage war is the most sweeping act of the executive and legislative branches, although the British would likely argue that Franklin Roosevelt even brought an incremental approach to that in the run-up to World War II. In modern times, most true transformation has come through the judiciary: Brown, Roe, Miranda. Perhaps that is because consensus on the court is manageable, with only five of nine required, or because justices have life tenure, and need not spend their days looking to the next election, the focus group, the polls. Although we view the past through a lens of misty historical romanticism, there's no question that the calculus of elected office at the moment is startlingly cynical. Henry Paulson, the last Treasury secretary in the last Bush administration, told Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair that he was most shocked by the perfidy of official Washington, in which members of Congress would tell him privately that they supported policies that they would oppose, even vigorously trash, in public. "I didn't understand the system," Paulson concluded, the system in which men and women have their consciences excised in the course of government service. The small steps an incremental system guarantees become even smaller in the face of pitched partisan rancor, until eventually nothing moves at all.

Americans point to events ranging from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Voting Rights Act to show that America knows how to think—and act—big. But a stroll through actual history, as opposed to the cherry-tree-chopping sort, provides a different narrative. Many abolitionists decried Lincoln's executive order, which freed few slaves and failed to make the buying and selling of humans illegal, while conservatives thought it was radical and unwise. In other words, it was a smallish, moderate, middle-ground measure. And while it has become gospel that Franklin Roosevelt utterly transformed the public weal through the New Deal, he was so frustrated by the opposition of conservative members of his own party that he proposed to Wendell Willkie that the liberal Democrats and the liberal Republicans join together to create a liberal party.

Even the astonishing domestic successes of the Johnson administration in 1965 were built on previous gains; the Voting Rights Act was begotten not only of the civil-rights marches, but also of Brown v. Board of Education. (And of hard-core politicking, of course. You have to wonder whether Lyndon Johnson would have gotten away with handing out public-works projects like cheap cigars if today's blogosphere had been around to record it in real time.) But there is one legacy of that year, a year that also saw the passage of Medicare and immigration-reform legislation, that may be instructive today. It's best summed up by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. She served as an aide in the Johnson White House, and her voice still carries the vibrato of excitement when she recalls that time.

"LBJ promised the members of Congress that they could someday say they'd made history," she says. "This Congress has never known the joy of that accomplishment. They haven't ever been part of an institution that moves collectively to change history for the benefit of the American people." She also notes that the presidents who have made real change have always done so in the same way: "Each of them had the country pushing the Congress to act, the people and the press both. The pressure has to come from outside." So if the American people want the president to be more like the Barack Obama they elected, maybe they should start acting more like the voters who elected him, who forcibly and undeniably moved the political establishment to where it didn't want to go. After all, in our system, even great, audacious change is never as audacious as it seems: calls for a national health-care system can be traced all the way back to Roosevelt—Teddy Roosevelt, in 1912. When Sen. Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, broke with her party to vote a health-care bill out of committee, she said, "When history calls, history calls." And it's not asking for baby steps.