Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Obama's victory won't transform America

By David M. Kennedy, Special to CNN
November 7, 2012 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
A blur of waving flags greeted President Barack Obama's victory speech at an election night event in Chicago, Illinois. A blur of waving flags greeted President Barack Obama's victory speech at an election night event in Chicago, Illinois.
HIDE CAPTION
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
Election 2012: The best photos
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Kennedy: Barack Obama's achievements fell short of his aspirations
  • Kennedy: American political system often disappoints voters and presidents
  • He says the presidency has less power in actuality than folklore has it
  • Kennedy: In a second term, Obama faces a divided, bickering government

Editor's note: David M. Kennedy is professor of history emeritus and director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. He won a Pulitzer Prize for "Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945."

(CNN) -- As yet another presidential election cycle ends, it's a good time not only to tally wins and losses, but to reflect on the nature of the American political system and why it so often disappoints voters and presidents alike.

Think of the extravagant hopes and promises that attended Barack Obama's election in 2008. Obama surely had good historical grounds for thinking that the seismic financial upheaval of 2009 presented him with opportunities to transform America for the better.

And so it did, to a degree his own reelection campaign somewhat mysteriously chose not to emphasize, by creating the political space for major legislative victories like the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms.

David M. Kennedy
David M. Kennedy

But those achievements fell measurably short of candidate Obama's aspirations, and were matched by precious few other initiatives that met the expectations arising from the 2008 campaign.

Opinion: Five things Obama must do

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



This time around a chastened Obama notably failed to offer a grand vision for the American future and instead contented himself with delegitimizing Mitt Romney and dwelling for the most part on small-bore issues.

What is it about the American presidency, anyway?

See the president's full victory speech
Gergen: Win shows desire for moderation
2008: Barack Obama wins the White House

Every four years, Americans become besotted with presidential politics. Indeed, in the media-marinated age of the "perpetual campaign" the besotting has no fixed cycle, quadrennial or otherwise. Though for more than a century near majorities of eligible voters have not bothered to cast ballots in presidential elections, none today can escape the saturation news coverage, ubiquitous advertising, and relentless prattle of the chattering classes that attend the contest for the White House.

No other country spends so much of its time choosing its top-level political leadership. The British and the Australians usually get the job done in less than six weeks. The French, as a rule, take no more than three. Canada's longest campaign ever, in 1926, lasted just 74 days. And no other people pour such vast buckets of money into their electioneering as the Americans -- some $6 billion in the current round. Perpetual presidential politicking is as American as apple pie -- and a darn sight more expensive.

And as for the candidates, what makes them run? In a nation long schooled to believe that any child can grow up to be president, an astonishing number of men of outsized ambition (and at least a few women) have taken the lesson to heart.

News: Romney only prepared a victory speech

They have devoted virtually their entire adult lives to seeking the presidency. They have plotted, maneuvered, schemed, bargained, cajoled, begged, exalted and often humiliated themselves in pursuit of the prize. Once in hand, the long-coveted office has sometimes made but more frequently broken them.

Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, two examples of the relatively few presidents who can be counted as successful, largely realized their grandest aims -- though in both cases the presidency cost them their lives, one by assassination, the other through catastrophic overwork and consequent self-neglect.

More often, in the case of otherwise accomplished and respected men, the presidency has merely cost them their reputations. For the likes of Ulysses Grant, Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson -- each of them celebrated masters of their pre-presidential domains -- the presidency proved a career-killing heart-breaker. Sixteen hundred Pennsylvania Avenue has been the scene of many bitter disappointments, as well as some tragedies of epic, Shakespearean proportions.

In light of that dispiriting history, why would anyone wish the travails of the presidency upon himself? As President James Garfield put it in 1881, after just a few months in office: "My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?"

Yet men have wanted it, desperately, including Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Both of them might answer Garfield's question by saying, simply, that the Oval Office is a matchless place from which to serve one's country.

But as Garfield and other presidents -- including Obama -- learned, the American presidency is a truly peculiar institution, with less power in actuality than folklore has it.

The president and vice president are but two of the 537 elected officials in Washington. Surrounding the White House is a political playing field mined with enough vetoes to stymie even the most ambitious of men.

News: GOP expands majority in governor's mansions

Yes, modern presidents oversee a vast 21st-century machinery of state whose operations touch almost every corner of American life. But they share executive authority with 50 governors; and many government entities, such as the Federal Reserve system, are formally independent of presidential control. The president has no official voice in the legislative process, save for his own veto, which can be overridden by congressional super-majorities. He can nominate federal judges and Supreme Court justices, but they must receive Senate confirmation, and in any case serve for life in a proudly independent judiciary. He is the commander in chief, but the Constitution reserves to Congress the right to declare war.

It is not simply the lust for power, however constitutionally jacketed it might be, that fuels men's and women's appetites for the office; it deserves to be acknowledged that love of country is among the reasons that so many good people, including Obama and Romney, have pined for the opportunity to serve.

Yet contrary to the balladeer's promises, in politics no less than in romance, love is not enough, and it rarely, if ever, conquers all.

Opinion: Obama will get little time to celebrate

This is the hard lesson that Obama has learned in the last four years as president. He is a devoted patriot who in his 2009 inaugural address praised the Founders, whose "ideals still light the world." He excited effusive affection among his countrymen on his way to winning the presidency in 2008.

But the last four years have seen no deepening love affair between the president and his people. On the contrary, the ardor of his supporters has measurably cooled, and some have jilted him altogether. His detractors have multiplied and hardened against him. And events have tempered even his extravagantly idealistic vision of his country.

The president's frustrations have derived not simply from the septic political climate of our times, but at least as much from a set of mechanisms carefully crafted by those same hallowed Founders more than two centuries ago.

Generations of schoolchildren have been taught to reverence the "checks and balances" the framers stitched so artfully into the Constitution. Less frequently noted are the liabilities that were integral to their design. They deliberately constructed the American governmental system so that it would be difficult to operate, the presidency in particular.

What do you think of the election results? Share your reaction.

Their colonial experience with the British crown and royal governors made them especially wary of executive power, and though the presidency was one of their cleverest innovations in that long-ago Philadelphia summer, they hedged it about with constraints and counterbalances to ensure that no president would ever accrue anything remotely resembling monarchical authority.

Small wonder that over the arc of American history only a handful of presidents can be said to have effected truly lasting transformational change -- Lincoln, FDR, Lyndon Johnson and perhaps Ronald Reagan make the short list, but few others do, and that's no accident.

Americans may yearn for strong leadership, but in their stubborn contrariness they do not want truly powerful leaders. They may want effective government, but they apparently like divided government even more, when neither party simultaneously controls House, Senate, and presidency -- the situation we've been saddled with for 31 of the last 43 years.

So it should not be surprising that Obama's accomplishments marked the narrow limits of the achievable. They triggered a vicious political backlash in the 2010 election, ushered in yet another round of divided government, and may yet prove but short-lived reminders of the young president's aspirations, not permanent features of the American landscape.

We are a democracy, and cannot escape the logic of the venerable maxim that we have the government we have chosen and that we deserve. Like it or not, Obama's first term confirmed that our inherited governmental system worked according to its design specifications.

The season of effective, vigorous presidential leadership had but the briefest half-life; the wheels of the constitutional machinery designed to hem the president in began to turn almost from his first day in office, as did the gears of our often perversely contradictory political culture. Within two years we had stalemate, and the blame game began in earnest.

Analysis: Obama won with a better ground game

But in the last analysis we have no one to blame but ourselves, and our inherited political system -- and we have no plausible reason to expect anything substantially different in Obama's second term.

From all appearances we are most probably in for a repeat performance of the last two years: a remarkably disciplined and decidedly intransigent Republican party dominating the House, a paper-thin and fragile Democratic majority in the Senate, and a diminished, dispirited, and check-mated president with little or no room for maneuver -- and this in the face of perhaps the greatest fiscal challenge in the history of the republic, an increasingly volatile international environment, and a raft of unfinished business like devising coherent national energy and immigration policies.

So why do we get so overheated about the presidency? Why don't we generate some heat about the antiquated system of which the president is but one, too often hapless, part? What is it about divided government, anyway?

If even as committed a change agent as Obama is doomed to four more years of nothing more than Lilliputian, small-beer tinkering; if the self-described greatest power in the world is so powerless to put its house in order, isn't it time for a thorough overhaul of our manifestly antiquated political machinery?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David M. Kennedy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT