Progress, Not Motion

As I am not yet really back from my vacation, I offer up a some quick thoughts on a subject I promise to explore more in the new year - the difference between progress and motion. 

The analogies we've heard - a New New Deal, Obama's 100 days, etc, a new FDR - all hearken back to a period of governance and leadership, that while simplistically similar to what the nation is experiencing today, is not at all the same. I worry that the Democrats and the incoming President are raising expectations too high, and in some ways, missing the zeitgeist of this moment. There is no quick fix to what we are experiencing now, no wave of a Congressional wand. We are not at 25 percent unemployment, and the fighting in Gaza reminds all of us that there are problems that defy easy solution even with the remarkable team Obama has built.  

The problems the Democrats are inheriting are much more structural than cyclical or temporal. Solving them will require far-sighted leadership, a steady hand and a strong management ethic that creates a culture of patient investment. Consider the challenges - how to get wages and incomes up once growth resumes; how to manage the societal, economic and political fallout of the first global recession of this new age of globalization; how to truly confront climate change; how we finally and successfully modernize our health care system, allowing universal coverage, lower prices and continued innovation; how to deal with the structural defecits left by the Republicans at the moment the Baby Boom generation begins to retire; how we best fix our broken immigration system; how to rebuild trust in the American financial system, and in the American brand abroad; how we move our people and our infrastructure into the more technology-dense and low-carbon future required for our success; how to best transform the great belt of instability from Lebanon to Pakistan into more democratic, prosperous and stable societies; and how the rise of new powers like China, India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia is creating competition to America's economic and political prowess in ways that we are only just beginning to understand.  

None of these challenges (and there are many more) have easy, quick, off-the-shelf, battle-tested, bipartisan solutions sitting there, ready to go. While the Democrats come off their strongest showing in the last 44 years of American politics, their majorities are still moderate in size, full of new and inexperienced members, with leaders who are fully in control of their caucuses but not yet fully experienced in leading a majority party -- a party that must now accomplish big things. The dynamic driving American politics these last two cycles has been as much about unhappiness with wages and incomes as it has been unhappiness with Bush - he is gone now, and no one really understands how to both get the economy going again and get incomes up.   

In stocking his government with smart, experienced and ambitious people, the incoming President is building a team capable of rising to the challenges we face today. But what the American people are looking for now is concrete progress, material changes to their lives.   The time for symbolic action, great focus on small-bore issues, loads and loads of congressional press conferences taking credit for things that no one believes matter very much, is over. This is a time in which our leaders need to show the American people that they get it, and explain that we have big and hard things to do; that doing them well will require patience, strong leadership and time; that they will stay focused each and every day on the big stuff and resist with all their might getting distracted by the ankle-biting politics of the every day. This would be hard in any circumstance, but will be particularly hard in the age of cable TV news and the new 24/7/365 news beast which requires to be fed each and every day, sometimes more than once...

After having lived in Washington for 16 years now, I have come to understand the difference between powerful action and motion. To a great degree, Congress, where power is so diffuse, can often be more about motion, about the perception of activity rather than action itself. But this is no time for that now - this is a time in which the Democrats must evaluate their success not in the numbers of press conferences they hold, but in how they have materially made things better for our people and the people of the world. Doing so will require patience, discipline, restraint, strong and sober leadership, time - the very opposite of a motion-filled 100 days being recommended by some. This isn't 1933. Obama isn't FDR. It is 2009, Obama is Obama, and the very 21st century challenges we face require very 21st century solutions and very 21st century leaders to bring them about.  Progress, true progress, is going to take time and it is critical that our leaders level with us about this if they truly want our partnership in helping tackle these great challenges together over the next generation.

If this culture shift is what the age of Obama brings, then we will have indeed entered an era of "new politics."