Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
No matter which candidate wins on Election Day, both liberalism and conservatism will have lost. This was supposed to be a moment of choice: Voters would be presented with two contrasting visions of the future and would give one or the other a mandate to move forward. But somewhere along the way clarity, as it so often does during presidential campaigns, gave way to horse race strategies, and we are left with a mess.
The Republicans, symbolized by Romney’s decision during the debates to offer an echo, bear a major share of the blame for the muddle. We nonetheless have a fairly good sense that if Romney were to win, and if he were to bring the Senate along with him, he would etch a new sketch and make a sharp turn to the right. If Obama, by contrast, hammers out an Electoral College victory, we have little idea what he will do. Because the Republicans opted not to display their conservatism during the election, Obama was under no obligation to defend his liberalism.
This may, for all I know, be exactly what Obama wants: a second term that frees him to secure the bipartisan agreement on the budget that is the one thing that evidently excites him. But if he were to opt for that course, we can be all but certain that, learning no lessons from defeat, the Republicans once again will spurn his invitation. It will take more than one presidential election before the Republicans will ever prefer governance to politics. When a country has only two parties, and one of them is so out of touch with reality, stalemate can only continue.
Given how unlikely it is that Republicans in Congress would ever work with him, a second term presents Obama with an opportunity to explain as well as cajole. For reasons no one has made understandable, the president, during his first term, made no real effort to sell Obamacare, a piece of legislation likely to go down in history as liberalism’s greatest accomplishment since the Great Society. Fortunately, John Roberts stepped in and saved the law, no doubt to the administration’s enormous relief. (Imagine what shape the 2012 campaign would have taken if Roberts voted the other way.) It is as if Obama believed that Americans, who have been hearing for decades that government does everything wrong, would change their minds and decide it can do right just because it actually had began to do so. Politics, alas, does not work that way.
Second terms in general offer few opportunities to innovate: Expect the 2016 presidential election to begin in a month of two. Even the president’s power to make appointments, especially those to the U. S. Supreme Court, will become embroiled in the politics of stalemate were he to have a second term. Whatever agenda Obama were to choose to follow, not much is going to happen.
Why not, then, use the second term to educate, especially since the president is an educator? Fortunately for the United States, Obamacare represented the last great middle-class entitlement program left over from the New Deal. For Obama to break our current political logjam, therefore, he need not prepare the public for any major steps forward. It would be enough for him to burnish his liberal credentials by mobilizing Americans to prevent things from going backward.
Of all the problems we face, Obama can use two to show how things have gotten worse – and how government can prevent them from deteriorating even further. One is increasing income inequality. The other is climate change.
Neither of these issues, it is worth pointing out, made much of an appearance during the 2012 campaign. Both candidates, to be sure, addressed the question of jobs. They were right to do so: The rate of unemployment has been too high for too long. But the real economic scandal of the past decade has been a return to levels of inequality that no civilized society should accept. This is the great moral issue of our day, one, moreover, that has been addressed over the centuries by all our major religious traditions. (It is also an issue that once motivated conservatives, who worried that such inequality would disrupt the social contract; but those days are long gone.) Each individual, or so one hopes, has a conscience. The president can serve as the country’s collective conscience, reminding us of what holds us together as a people. Elizabeth Warren touched on these themes in Massachusetts. Obama can do it in Washington. When it comes to the common good, no one person builds that. We all do – or we all don’t.
Climate change is also an issue that in an ideal world would transcend liberalism and conservatism, but that in our world has become a liberal issue – and even then only for some liberals. It offers, I believe, a perfect second-term opportunity. We are a long way from effective legislation to address it. Given the power of interest groups in Washington, moreover, any effort to address it would likely be weak and perhaps even counterproductive. On this issue we need talk as much as, if not more than, action. The term “bully pulpit” was coined by Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican who loved the environment. If ever the bully pulpit function of the presidency were useful, it would be to heighten public awareness about what is happening to our atmosphere.
When nothing gets done, a little can go a long way. Obama will have scant chance of completing a credible legislative agenda in his second term. He will have a great chance to try to change how we understand the world. Doing so would be an accomplishment that would put him in the history books and make us proud to be Americans.
Alan Wolfe's new book, "Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense Of Purpose And What it Needs To Do To Recover It" (Princeton University Press) has just been released. More Alan Wolfe.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)