People want to believe in their government. They want to trust it, rely on it, follow its lead, contribute to its health. They take pride in it. After all, they own it.
When your government turns on you, when the institutions you thought worked for you begin to prey on you, your trust erodes. The same thing happens when your government lies to you, justifies or hides its misdeeds with all kinds of dishonesty and propaganda, and engages in criminal behavior. Your first reaction is dismay, then anger, and in the end a conviction that the government is illegitimate.
We came close to a situation like that in the 1960s and 1970s. Ronald Reagan grasped its seriousness. He understood that many looked to him not so much for specific policy changes, but for leadership that would restore the government’s legitimacy. He supplied that leadership, and citizens granted him leeway to accomplish a lot of changes in both foreign and domestic policy. People looked to him for leadership, and he delivered.
Obama faced a similar situation, except that he came into office with a progressive outlook rather than a conservative one. Many voted for him not because they favored his policy prescriptions, but because, after a decade or more of partisan, broken, dishonest government they wanted a leader who would make them proud of their civic institutions again. If President Obama had fulfilled the promise of his campaign to provide that kind of leadership, voters would grant him the freedom he needed to enact at least some of his progressive policy solutions.
To follow this course, Obama needed to continue giving inspirational speeches after he was elected, starting with his inaugural address. Instead he used his inaugural address to deliver a mild scolding, suggesting we all ought to be somewhat displeased with our behavior. More measured words followed: careful self-editing so as not to say the wrong thing before a press that loves to play gotcha. Absent was the free-flowing oratory of the campaign. In place of the old-time religion, we had a stern father who didn’t smile.
A year later, in January of 2010, Obama had a critical decision to make. How would he respond to the election of Scott Brown, Republican from Massachusetts, to the United States Senate? Brown’s election took away the Democrats’ 60-vote super-majority in the upper house. How would Obama handle the health care bill now that the partisan breakdown in the Senate was 59-41? Would he back Nancy Pelosi’s hardball plan to push the bill through, or would he judge that public trust and legitimacy ranked higher than legislative victory for his party’s health care policy?
We know how Obama chose, and we’ve seen citizens’ reaction to his choice since he made it. Dismay and anger have turned into alienation so deep, many hold the government in contempt. That is a long way from the pride people hoped for when President Obama stood up to take his oath on January 20, 2009. People looked to him for leadership, not business as usual. A year later they received another backroom deal, victory for the Democrats and dismay for everyone else.