Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

Back in the fall of 2008, I talked to alumni of Amherst College in San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and spoke about theories of the American presidencies, leaning a lot on the work of a Yale professor named Steven Skowronek. In The Politics Presidents Make, he argued that presidencies exist within two timeframes: a cyclical timeframe which adheres more or less to the scheme of critical elections, and what he calls “secular time.” The latter has to do with the historical development of the United States—a tiny, fragile, vulnerable country that, through the exploitation of slaves and immigrant labor, the destruction of Native Americans, and the great good luck of rich natural resources, as well as the hard work and genius of many good people, evolved into an imperial power during the late-nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. This expansion occurred with an accompanying extraordinary growth of military, bureaucracy, and the centralization of power. The immense web of laws and regulations, the growth of the welfare state, and the recession of the European powers as a result of WWII enabled the United States to become the great global power of the twentieth century.

In the last part of that century we overextended ourselves in many ways, as all empires do. The intensified power of the great, organized interests—since the advent of neo-liberalism, the immense corporations—created a large permanent national government joined at the hip with private powers. Globalization has been the result of that neo-liberalism, and helped transform the United States into the debtor nation that it now is. This development, coupled with an increasingly polarized political climate that was in part brought about by that very growth, and that has been exacerbated by the emergence of new forms of electronic media, has increasingly diminished the ability of presidents over this secular time to fundamentally shift the direction of government. As Theodore Lowi, a teacher of both Skowronek and myself, argued in a book called The Personal President, presidents must act immediately to fulfill their campaign pledges while they have a window of opportunity, and that over the past century that window of opportunity has grown more and more narrow, so that what a president now does in the earliest days of his or her administration largely is all that he or she will be able to do.  Moreover, as things continue to get worse for the majority, during their campaigns presidents must promise more than they can deliver. They are helpless giants, in a sense, buffeted by forces beyond their control, unable to respond to an increasingly deep crisis brought about in part by the very success of the country in becoming what it is.

The question back in the fall, when we imagined Obama might be elected, was, how much time would he have to enact his agenda? That is, given the depth of our problems, what would he be able to do, how much patience would the American people have, and how much support would he be able to garner from the Congress? (This is of course a different question, because the gap between what the public wants and what the members of Congress want have rarely been larger than they are now.)

What does any of this have to do with the question of this symposium? When Obama said, “Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old.  These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history,” he was of course evoking the idea of American exceptionalism, a claim that we are possessed of distinctive values that, in times of crisis, come to the fore, and then inspire us to save our sorry asses.

Presidents are compelled to use the language of exceptionalism in two important ways. If our presidents are to be believed, we are always doing something New and something Great. We have had, in the past eighty years, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, the New Nixon, Morning in America, A Thousand Points of Light, a New Covenant, a Bridge to Tomorrow, and Compassionate Conservatism, and now we have a New Foundation. These slogans are made to do a lot of work, in that they suggest another word that became the brand of the Obama campaign last year: change. This rhetoric reflects an interesting fact: while it is common for us to claim that there is no real progressivism in the United States anymore, the truth is that both ruling parties for the past eighty years have had to envelop themselves in a rhetoric of progressive change or transformation in order to be credible with the American people, who are deeply addicted to Newness and Greatness.

At the same time, and indeed as a part of the rhetoric of exceptionalism, presidents constantly invoke the Constitution as the rock upon which this church of America is built. The Constitution, whether you believe it to be a living document (Justice Breyer) or a dead one (Justice Scalia), is the ultimate foundation upon which all renewal is supposed to take place. No one can question it, especially the core of it, though many are incredibly inventive in interpreting it.

Obama has thus far followed pretty much the same pattern as all modern presidents, though he is far more competent than his predecessor. In terms of the length of Lowi’s window of opportunity, Obama has been remarkably successful at enacting key parts of his agenda early on, while sustaining a continued high level of popularity with the American people. And his presidency effectively began early, given the collapse of the Bush administration in the interim between the election and the inauguration. But the enactment of the stimulus package, the successful extension of TARP monies, the credit reform, and the beginning of the health program have created a sense of momentum that has so far served Obama’s administration well. Moreover, most of Obama’s initiatives on foreign policy have been embraced, so far, at least, by the public. In part, all of this early success is due to the weakened condition of the GOP in Congress and nationally, but it is also a testimony to the political skills of Obama and his team of advisors.

But despite these advances, the language of his Inaugural Address demanded much more than Obama has been able to produce. Our crisis is not simply one of spirit: the United States is facing a decline, as is inevitable for imperial powers, and how that decline is to be addressed needs to be at the heart of this presidency. And in this regard, Obama is little different than George Bush in the two arenas of power that matter most: economic policy and national security policy.

Let me stipulate—I think the offenses against the Constitution in so many of the actions taken by the Bush administration were outrageous, and indeed, I would judge them to warrant criminal trials. But I also find it telling that President Obama is trying to prevent the serious investigation of these alleged crimes. And I find it equally telling that he is trying to figure out a way to evade the constitutional requirement of habeas corpus by suggesting that the indefinite detention of some of the Gitmo prisoners—some who cannot go on trial because the evidence was tainted as a result of torturous interrogation—may need to continue to be policy. Moreover, I have noticed that we now have members of the Obama administration suggesting that we may need to continue our occupation of Iraq for up to ten more years, and that we need to build a Green Zone-like American Embassy in Kabul. While couched in much softer rhetoric, and with more diplomatic approaches to the Arab world than his fundamentalist Christian predecessor, Obama has not separated himself from President Bush’s policy, especially Bush’s second term policy, when it became clearer that, as they say, the jig was up, and the cover-up of these policies had to be coupled with a dismantling of the worst abuses.

On the domestic side of the ledger, while the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court signals a mild willingness to begin to constrain corporate abuses of power, the larger frame again indicates as much continuity with the Bush administration as departure. Banks too big to fail, cooperation with health insurance giants, a TARP fund that gives to the rich and steals from the rest of us, no real relief for those who were victimized by subprime mortgages, none of these abuses of capitalism are being attacked for what they are.

Why is it that there are these key continuities in crucial areas of policy, some of which Obama vehemently opposed when he was running for president, and continues to oppose at the level of rhetoric? After all, he is supposedly constrained by the Constitution, compelled, if he is to obey the law himself, to dismantle these illegal security policies. And while the rape of the Treasury (I was fascinated to learn the term “moral hazard” during the free fall of last autumn) may not be unconstitutional, or even necessarily illegal, it does go hand in hand with the need to prop up a financial system that is almost completely beyond the control of a supposedly democratic state.

But here’s the thing. Since World War II, every president has violated the Constitution in matters consequential enough to result, if one were to be a stickler at all, in impeachment. Truman seized the steel mills, Eisenhower secretly threatened nuclear war against the Chinese, and JFK ordered assassinations. LBJ was responsible for the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon for Watergate, and I suspect that a condition for Nixon stepping down was the pardon Ford issued. Reagan had the Iran-contra affair, and Clinton overstepped Congress in going to war in the Balkans. Bush—well, we’ve been there.

Notice that the serious offenses are all connected to foreign policy. But they are also connected with the politics of the Cold War, and then the politics of globalization. In all cases, presidents felt frustrated either by statutory constraints, or by the slowness of Congress to approve, or by the need to wave bloody flags in order to get Congress to move. What am I suggesting?

We believe in the Constitution, and we believe in the special fate of America. But we’ve not necessarily been well served by either belief during the past half-century. Obama, if he is to be the great president his ardent supporters want him to be, may well need to imitate another great leader from the past. We need to look for a leader who has managed the decline of an imperial power, without destroying the world. I am referring to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who spoke the truth and led the Russian people past a system of government that no longer could be imagined to serve them. Too expensive, too corrupt, falling from its own weight, bankrupt financially, foolishly nationalistic—that country was the most dangerous country in the world at the time, as much because of its delusions as because of its destructive power.

The United States, of course, is not the same as the Soviet Union was. Empires decline on their own timetables and in their own ways. American renewal in the Obama years may involve a new rhetoric of unity, may involve a vast rebuilding of our infrastructure in more environmentally sound ways, and may involve a renewed resolve to secure the United States against the terror that lurks in a way that doesn’t shame us. But, and this is a big but, if we do not learn to live more humble lives, in diminished circumstances, and replace our foolish dreams of a return to the American century past, we will suffer a lot more than we will if we finally face the truth about the damage we have done to ourselves, the obsolete character of our governing institutions, and the failure of democracy that we have suffered in order to acquire this strange empire we are now losing. As Obama also said in his speech, it is time to put away childish things.

Such a task calls for a great leader, one who will be willing to engage in the sort of sacrifice that Obama, for all his gifts, has not yet shown himself willing to make. Putting away childish things means growing up. Growing up means speaking first, sticking your neck out, saying what is true and just regardless of the consequences for yourself. Obama, I fear, has yet to grow up.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]