When the 2008 elections came along, political participation became "trendy", some might say, "cool"....
During a few extrordinary months, the Democratic primary became the must-watch reality-TV show of the year... The general election tossed-up the very real possibility of an Obama Presidency - literally a new face for the body-politic (a young, liberal, charismatic, African-American man who'd started his career as a community organizer). Incredible!
Suddenly, everyone was talking, living, and breathing electoral politics.
Voter participation sky-rocketed: first the numbers of those "emotionally invested" in the election, mushroomed - then the number of campaign volunteers soared into the stratosphere. And finally (on election day), the numbers of young people and poor people (who stood in line to vote – the very individuals who had "sat it out" in the past), hit levels not seen for generations!
Opinion poll numbers showed large spikes in confidence - indicating that government could "do the right thing by" ordinary Americans.
And yet (now, 15 months after Obama's election), 62% of the US population is convinced that the country is on the wrong track, and most Americans seem to believe that the government isn't looking out for their best interests afterall...
The growing suspicion is perhaps, this: that 2008 wasn't quite the clean break many thought it to be... Would such a notion explain just why so many Obama voters sat-out the recent "special election" (in Massachusetts)? And also - why so many others voted for Scott Brown – and yet bizarrely also, why so many told pollsters that they wanted Brown (a Republican) to "work with" Democrats (to implement some version of healthcare reform)?
The polls of early 2009 indicated that a majority of voters were willing to give Barack Obama "years" (to turn the "broken economy" around). Now, those polls have been updated, and most reveal that increasing numbers of Americans are deeply impatient with, and resentful of, the still-sluggish pace of economic recovery.
Obama's great dilemma is that he used the language of "hope and change" to set the "bar" almost impossibly "high" for his Presidency.
His rhetoric was skillfully used to energize his audience (one that exhibited more enthusiasm than stamina, one that WANTS change to be both: instantaneous and easy). It has proven to be anything but. After all, a President can set the tone, but when it comes to domestic policy reforms - only Congress can pass Bills - not the sitting President!
The compromises made with various Senators (to secure their support on healthcare), has smacked of a political, "business as usual" climate. And the Public reacted accordingly – growing increasingly angry at the "Washington, DC mentality". Some have responded by jumping from Obama's vision of "change" to that indignities of their "Tea Parties". Others reacted by reverting to historical "apathy" and (once more), by removing themselves from the political process altogether.
Now, robbed of a "filibuster-proof" majority in the Senate, healthcare reformers can only watch - as their "moment for change" slips through their fingers....
The combined effect has made the overall political climate all the more unpleasant. Example: the recent Supreme Court ruling eviscerated spending-limits that Corporations can hand-out (to influence elections). That alone means there's going to be a strong likelihood that politics will become even uglier, messier, and more "beholding" to special interests - than it has been in the past.
All of which prompts an observation: commentators told the once-apathetic that they had "no right" to complain (if they weren't going to participate). And so (in 2008), they finally participated. They helped elect a progressive President, and gave the Democratic party the biggest Congressional majority seen, in decades. They put in place a foundation for the sort of across-the-board change - not seen since the "Great Society" years, or perhaps even, since "The New Deal".
And the result?
We're a year into a new administration's rule. We've got political stalemate. Instead, of leadership, we've disoriented Congressional would-be leaders. Moreover, there is no clear leader (especially when it comes to fighting for healthcare reform, some version of which a clear majority of Americans, want). There is a growing sense that the plutocrats -- the bankers, the great corporations, the holders of vast fortunes – will always win, that the political system is fundamentally "fixed", to be stacked-against the "little guy".
That's a dangerous caldron of hot soup...
Too many of the ingredients of the moment in in the mix: anger, rage, frustration, fear of economic calamity (loss of home, loss of job), and in particular ...a sense of hopes betrayed and promises broken, of having been sold a bill of goods! People are bitter, and embittered politics tend to generate two things: apathy and/or authoritarianism.
One can only hope that the Democrats will find their sea-legs soon, and that Congress can follow-through with "genuine promise" (for the transformations that were embodied by Obama's candidacy in 2008). If they don't; if they duck and weave; and hope that small-bore changes will suffice to meet the towering needs of the moment - then politics will likely take some particularly "ugly turns" in the years ahead.
In the election campaign, Obama repeatedly talked of "the urgency of now."
That urgency is still there, as are the transformative ambitions and instincts of President Obama. In 2010, Congressional Democrats need to find a way to harness the "urgency", and to implement "big-picture" reforms akin to those that the Obama election promised to usher-in.
If they can't, or don't - they will have lost a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity.