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Obama in Seattle: The burden of expectations

Democrats got what they asked for in 2008. If they are surprised by the political challenges they face now, they shouldn't be.

During the 2008 campaign, the enthusiasm for one candidate or the other tended to bury an unpleasant truth: Whoever got elected would face huge problems that would be difficult to handle to the public’s satisfaction. As President Obama visits Seattle today (Aug. 17), that reality has caught up with him and his party.

Obama has relatively low popularity ratings, and the Democratic candidates for whom he is campaigning, including Sen. Patty Murray, face difficult election contests. Now, he will try to use his superior oratory and intellectual skills to rally voters to keep at least working Democratic majorities in Congress, anything but a sure thing.

Those Obama skills played a big role in creating high expectations during the 2008 campaign and surrounding his inauguration. He can be fairly faulted for not having moved fast enough on his health, stimulus and economic priorities. His Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, had a point about Obama’s inexperience, particularly in administration.

But even the best manager would have had only a fair shot at creating a national sense of being on the right track now. There were (and are) still two wars to wind down, not undertakings where haste would be helpful. Obama also inherited economic problems that, to a large extent, had been building for a generation; his administration, like his predecessor’s, averted outright catastrophe but failed to lift the public’s deep uneasiness. Just as Nouriel Roubini and some other economists predicted, finding a way toward less risky models for economic growth has proven difficult.

Behind both the economic and national security challenges, there’s the changing world all around us, underlined recently by China’s new rise to the world’s second largest economy (behind the U.S.) and Germany’s ability to keep the European economy on a reasonably steady course. Those trends suggest that the long-term answer for this country is to build international institutions and to collaborate in ways that share burdens and opportunities more broadly. Ultimately, that can be very positive for America, freeing it somewhat from the burdens and hatreds fostered by the world’s 65-year reliance on the United States to maintain some sort of international order.

Just two years ago, Obama created a movement that swept up many people, especially the young, in hope for positive change at home and abroad. But change is taking time, and many of his young supporters are now unlikely to show much interest in the congressional election.

In the meantime, the economic and international challenges loom perhaps even larger before the electorate. And the natural inclination, absent inspiration on Obama’s 2008 scale, will be for many people to vote their fears about the future and look for answers from those who position their campaigns on a rather American-centric view of the world. Campaigns built around supposedly traditional values — free enterprise, self-reliance, the military strength to smash opponents — will surely hold strong allure this year nationally, whether or not they play well in a state as internationally oriented as Washington.

Democrats got what they wished for in 2008. Now, they face legitimate issues about national direction and identity that would have emerged in any but the most miraculous scenarios for the economy, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Joe Copeland is political editor for Crosscut. You can reach him at Joe.Copeland@crosscut.com.


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