26 January 2016

Rick Perlstein: Obama, Transformed

Thinking About the President He Might Have Been

They say the president gave his seventh State of the Union address last Tuesday, but personally, I count eight. On February 24, 2009, Barack Obama’s 35th full day in office, he delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress to explain how America had gotten into its economic mess and how his just-passed $787 billion stimulus bill would help get it out. He spoke about foreign policy, too: about his plans to wrench America’s orientation toward the rest of the world away from the snarling martial barks of the Bush years, rebuild alliances, reestablish diplomacy as a first resort, and use “all elements of our national power”—for, he concluded, “living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger.” It started Obama’s first term off with a wave of nearly universal approval—even among Republicans.

’ve always seen that speech as a key to understanding a certain sort of road not taken by this administration. It’s one that could have led Obama to considerably more success than he has enjoyed, and perhaps even fulfilled expectations that his would be a “transformational” and not a “transactional” presidency—a failure Obama himself seemed to acknowledge by explicitly, almost apologetically, comparing himself unfavorably to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.


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