We are beginning to learn that the Obama presidency will
be an era of substantial but deferred accomplishments perhaps always to
be accompanied by a sense of continuing crisis. His vaunted "cool" allows
him to wait without impatience and to endure without visible despair. It
asks the same of his constituents.
These thoughts were generated by the events of the past few days in
Washington, when a glut of 46 visiting heads of state caused a massive
traffic tie-up and a veritable windstorm of talk, all to yield a promise
that two years hence, we may see major steps toward control of loose
nuclear weapons and their fuel.
A year ago in Prague, Barack Obama treading deliberately and
dramatically further down the path of disarmament than his predecessors of
either party had dared to go drew his portrait of a world substantially
freed from the fear of atomic annihilation.
This week, responding to his leadership, the nations of the world
with a few notable exceptions on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide
sent their leaders to Washington to signal their assent to that aspiration.
Two years from now, they or their successors will reconvene and we
will be able to measure how much or little progress they have made
individually and collectively toward this noble goal.
This is the characteristic pattern, we can now begin to see, of
Obama's great initiatives. It is repeated in health care, in economic
policymaking, and it seems safe to speculate it is likely to be
followed in education, energy, the environment and fiscal policy as well.
Take health care. More than a year ago, Obama outlined a vision of a
redesigned system, covering far more people at substantially lower per
capita cost. He was notably sparing in how to get there and for many
months, it was not clear that Congress would take up the challenge. In the
end, a law was enacted that addressed exactly those goals. But it will be
four years at least before its key components are in place and another four
beyond that until its financing mechanism will really be tested.
Take the economy. The "emergency" measures designed to deal with the
manufacturing calamities and the overall housing and economic crises Obama
inherited were quickly passed in 2009. But none was expected to show its
results at that moment. For month after month, there was no sign that the
downward spiral had been slowed, and only now, more than a year later, are
there enough positive signs in employment, in sales and in profits
that many economists are willing to talk about recovery.
It is very likely that if and when Congress responds to other
challenges Obama has given it to restructure financial regulation,
rationalize energy and education and environmental policies, and slow the
ruinous growth of entitlement programs the pattern will be the same:
incremental steps leading to possible future breakthroughs.
For a nation whose culture has produced a psychology demanding instant
gratification, this politics of deferred satisfaction is something not
easily learned. In his political career, Obama has been a perfect
embodiment of an impatient generation. He rocketed through his few years in
Springfield to capture a Senate seat from Illinois, then quickly became
impatient with its ways and set his cap for the presidency.
But somewhere, he has learned the virtues of patience when it comes to
I think it is welcome to have a president whose vision extends beyond
the duration of his own term of office, though it entails a political risk
that he could be cut off by the voters before any of his hopes are
realized. If the current high level of public frustration fuels a
Republican resurgence well beyond the normal midterm losses for a
president's party, it is possible that next year might see a serious effort
to repeal the health care act and reject his initiatives in international
affairs as well.
I do not think this is likely. But a president who is not driven by a
compulsion to provide instant gratification for his constituents must also
cultivate adult patience in them. My bet would be that Obama has that