Barack Obama made history in 2008. It may now be his fate merely to mark time.
Obama’s election as the first black president closed a chapter – though surely not the book – in America’s long, vexed racial history, just as John F. Kennedy’s election as the first Roman Catholic president in 1960 amounted to a major cadence in the nation’s turbulent religious history. Kennedy proved to be both the first and last Catholic president, in the sense that Catholicism has never since defined political identities the way it did for most of the Republic’s first two centuries (think Al Smith’s crushing defeat in 1928).
And as predicted in this space four years ago, Obama has already proved to be both the first black president and the last black president. He has shattered a historic barrier that can’t be put back together again.
To be clear: There will undoubtedly be black presidential candidates in the future, but their racial identity won’t principally determine their political destinies, just as Obama’s race played no material role in the campaign just concluded. Nor, importantly, did Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. The absence of both racial and religious politicking in this election cycle – not to mention voter approval of same-sex marriage in three states – testifies powerfully to the American people’s expanding sense of tolerance and inclusion.
The dilation of our definition of “we, the people” is a large and commendable historical achievement, a sign of the nation’s deepening commitment to its founding principles of equality and justice for all – and perhaps a healthy if somewhat paradoxical counterweight to the alarmingly widening economic inequality of our time.
But the Founders left some other legacies, too, not all of them as praiseworthy in our time as in theirs. Take two matters: our fabled system of checks and balances and the workings of our political parties.
“The great object of terror and suspicion to the people of the thirteen provinces was power,” wrote Henry Adams, America’s most trenchantly insightful historian. “Not merely power in the hands of a president or a prince, of one assembly or several, of many citizens or few, but power in the abstract, wherever it existed and under whatever form it was known.”
Even Thomas Jefferson, famous for his sunny appraisal of human nature and his faith in the good sense of the common folk, insisted that “in questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
The framers’ fear of power informed virtually every paragraph of the constitution they drafted in the sweltering Philadelphia summer of 1787. They created a governing system laced with all those crosscutting and countervailing mechanisms that we learned about in civics class: divided sovereignty between federal and state governments; legislative authority shared by two chambers with different rules, their members chosen by different methods and on different cycles; a president beholden to Congress on many counts, not least for his war-making powers, and elected by yet another method (the Electoral College) and on yet another calendar cycle; and a blessedly independent judiciary (though staffed only through joint presidential and congressional approval of nominees).
The framers purposefully built a limited-government apparatus well-suited to a fairly homogeneous, mostly agricultural society of some 4 million people. But they also worried a lot about how well their system would work if the dreaded demon of “faction” – what today we call political parties – somehow slithered into this Edenic scene. In a famously clever argument, James Madison’s celebrated Federalist Paper No. 10 argued that the sheer scale, plurality of interests, and fluidity of movement and status in the teeming new nation would impede the formation of permanent factions and thus inoculate Americans against the kinds of tyranny – or deadlock – that factions bred.
Yet factions emerged nonetheless, and quickly. In the first full decade of nationhood, Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton sharply distinguished themselves from “Democratic-Republicans” such as Thomas Jefferson, setting the stage in 1800 for one of the most venomously contested presidential elections in all of American history. Jefferson narrowly defeated his Federalist foes on that occasion, and in his Inaugural Address spoke the conciliatory words that have formed the template for all presidential winners (and losers) ever since: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” he said, and added: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Generous sentiments, and they helped give birth to a remarkable season of national comity and political calm that historians have labeled “The Era of Good Feelings.” The factions of the 1790s were largely defanged. The Federalists virtually disappeared as an organized political bloc. Political parties as we know them today were all but invisible. More than two decades of stability allowed the young nation to consolidate its hard-won revolutionary gains and shape its institutions and habits for the long haul. Expressing the national mood, the electorate returned a string of three two-term presidents: the “Virginia Dynasty” of Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe.
This blissful interlude came to a noisy end in the bitterly controversial election of 1824 and the subsequent emergence of essentially permanent political parties in the age of Andrew Jackson – the recognizable origins of the political culture we’ve had ever since. The two-party system born in Jackson’s day served the nation well for more than a century thereafter. But that system has become seriously dysfunctional today, in ways that recollect Madison’s worst fears about faction.
With Obama’s re-election we now have for only the second time in American history three back-to-back two-term presidencies. But if the Virginia Dynasty’s 24-year reign signified stability and common purpose, our own presidential trifecta, ironically, has been attended by stasis and seemingly irreconcilable conflict.
Our current situation makes a mockery of Madison’s beguiling explanation for why we have nothing to fear from factions. And both Mitt Romney’s and Barack Obama’s ritual gestures on election night of comradeship across the aisle were so perfunctory as to make a mockery of Jefferson’s famously inclusive axiom. If the Mexicans hadn’t come along first, we might describe our present political predicament as an American Standoff. Under the circumstances, maybe New York Times columnist Tom Friedman can be forgiven for fantasizing that “if we could just be China for a day,” we might get some business done.
But we are not China, nor are we the can-do America of yesteryear. After a seemingly endless $6 billion campaign, for all practical purposes we are right back where we have been since at least 2010. Two political parties face each other across an ideological chasm that would have beggared Madison’s imagination.
As meticulously documented in Thomas E. Mann’s and Norman J. Ornstein’s blistering book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” one of those parties – the Republican Party – has moved much further from the political centerline than the other. Thanks not least to the tea party infusion of recent years, the GOP has become less a conventional political party than what Mann and Ornstein call “an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Mann and Ornstein go on to explain the deep incompatibility of our inherited constitutional system, which is predicated on the necessity of compromise, with the de facto parliamentary-style winner-take-all, damn-the-opposition mentality of so many of today’s Republicans.
Congressional Republicans have displayed remarkable discipline over the last few years, holding their ranks fast and spurning repeated presidential blandishments. Simply as a matter of political craft, it’s been an impressive performance. Yet they have failed to make good on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hope to make Barack Obama a one-term president. Can the re-elected president now induce them, at last, to get in touch with their inner Jefferson, find common ground, and usher in a new Era of Good Feelings? Now that would be one for the history books.David M. Kennedy, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history, is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus and director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.