The Obama Gamble

Is Accommodation a winning hand?

When candidate Barack Obama emerged as a competitive presidential candidate early in 2008, he elicited two contrasting emotions—elation and apprehension. Both arose from the same perception: Obama was a lefty. The elated saw a candidate ready to press a progressive agenda, exactly what the apprehensive feared.

The debt-ceiling imbroglio that ended in the deficit-reduction agreement on August 2 has pretty much squelched that hope and eased that fear. The final bill veered so far toward Republican and Tea Party demands on cuts without new taxes that Obama was accused of abandoning every principle but the principle of accommodation. If that’s overstating the matter, it’s not by much. By now we know that neither the elated nor the apprehensive had an accurate reading of the candidate.

Was Obama ever the reformer-in-chief that Democrats longed for?

Back in 2008, I laughed at friends enthralled by the idea of his being a “radical.”  “Remember where he comes from—Chicago.” That’s where Obama honed his political skills, where he ran for office, and where he won and lost campaigns. And that’s where he perfected his ability to be accommodating—the quality that sits like sour milk in the mouths of former fans. Yet, if Obama hadn’t learned to compromise and be obliging, he never would have made it to the Illinois State Senate in 1997, the U.S. Senate in 2004, and the 2008 presidential nomination.


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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.