The Man and the Movement

Throughout the Obama campaign, there was always one big donkey in the room: What if he actually can’t—or doesn’t—bring about change we can believe in?

This wasn’t something his legion of supporters—myself included—liked to talk about. Publicly, we were all “fired up and ready to go.” As I often joked during the campaign, I didn’t just drink the Kool-Aid, I made the Kool-Aid.

There were good reasons for this. After eight years of fear-mongering and war-hawking, many of us were ready for something—anything—different. But it was more than simply anger and exasperation that drove us to the polls. Barack Obama gave us a reason to vote for him, rather than just another lame excuse to vote against them. We were taken by his formidable intellect and his youthful energy. We were interested in his story, inspired by his eloquence, and impressed with his honesty. Older generations who had endured the stinging insults of racism found in him cause for hope that their deferred dreams might finally be realized. And people my age—young enough to still care but old enough to be angry—were grateful for the chance to believe in something again.

That was then.

It’s been almost a year since that historic election, and our hope has lost some of its audacity. With troops still on the ground and uncertainty still in the air, war in Iraq presses on with no end in sight and a daily price tag well into the millions. And now, President Obama is preparing to ramp up the “good war” in Afghanistan. The United States hasn’t won a ground war in over half a century, and now one of the smartest presidents in modern American history thinks he can win two of them. One struggles in vain to find the logic in this lunacy.

Here at home, we have watched as President Obama—and his maddeningly inept Democratic majority—squander control of the national debate over health-care reform. In place of intelligent deliberation, we have ignorant demagoguery. Instead of concern and compassion for the uninsured, we hear cries of “Communism!” from the uninformed. The president tried to stop the bleeding with one of his trademark orations—this time to a joint session of Congress during prime time—but his performance only underscored the old cliché that sometimes actions are better than words.

President Obama has disappointed on other matters as well. He’s backtracked on wiretapping and stonewalled on LGBT issues. He bailed out Wall Street but failed to put stricter measures in place to regulate the unbridled greed and corruption that caused this mess in the first place. His advisors now say that closing Guantánamo won’t be so easy, and we still don’t know whether his Justice Department will actually prosecute Bush-era officials who treated the Constitution like toilet paper. Last week, things got so bad that the president couldn’t even bring the Olympics back home.

Of course, we can’t place all the blame on his shoulders. These are tough, complex times. There are no easy solutions to things like war and health care and economic recession. Moreover, President Obama hasn’t even completed one year in office. Complex issues can’t be solved overnight, and he inherited quite a mess to begin with. We should also remember that the president is just one man. In a political system that rests, ideally, on a balance of power, effective leadership requires collaboration and compromise. That said, this president is sometimes too collaborative, too willing to compromise on matters of both policy and principle. His Achilles heel is that he wants everyone to like him. Indeed, so far, Obama has failed to make the transition from the consensus politics of campaigning to the contentious politics of governing. Ultimately, his success in office will depend on it.

But Obama’s failures are also our failures, especially those of us who worked so hard to get him elected. Far too many of us equated the man with the movement, as if electing a strong candidate was the same thing as effecting social change. And far too many of us have rested on our laurels since the election, satisfied by a job well done and convinced that Obama would make the world right again. But in these troubled times, the man needs his movement back, to ensure that the change we believed in produces the world we want to live in. Obama cannot—and will not—do it without us. Real change comes from the people, not the president.

Timothy P. McCarthy ’93 is Director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He was a founding member of Barack Obama’s National LGBT Leadership Council.