In 2008, on the eve of his election to the presidency, Barack Obama greeted a huge and bouyant crowd in Chicago with this invocation to unity:
“This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.”
Early Wednesday, after he’d swept through the swing states, caused a Rovian fit on Fox’s election night coverage, and was elected to his second term, President Obama reminded us again about his grace, his temperament, his fairness. It’s why the majority of Americans hold Obama — a bit worn, a little chastened, still determined — in such regard:
“Tonight, despite all the hardship we’ve been through, despite all the frustrations of Washington, I’ve never been more hopeful about our future. I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight.
I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”
Walt Whitman saw Abraham Lincoln as “the grandest figure on the crowded canvas of the drama of the 19th century.” I keep coming up with an image of Lincoln when I consider Obama. The pictures of the president returning to Washington yesterday reminded me of the Civil War president – slim, resolute, shoulders bent with burden. Like Lincoln, Obama presides over a nation divided, fighting a pitched ideological war, much of it centered around racism and intolerance, and its blistering heart firmly beating in the states of the Deep South.
Obama is, without question, the dominant figure of the earliest years of the 21st century. Whether he becomes one of the grand figures of the entire century is tied to one necessary breakthrough: The president’s ability to convince someone of merit from across the political aisle to work with him to put aside the ugliness. He needs a Republican to stand with him, as he said this week, to rework “a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war, to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being. We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America.”
Who might that person be? My guess is that it could be Representative Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate. My hunch is that he is a young and gifted politician who has tasted the promise of national office. He’s also viewed as one of the House’s most influential and respected members.
Ryan is smart enough to know that the oppressive nastiness of his party’s right wing will make his path to the White House much more difficult, if not impossible. Ryan looks to be a gambler who knows how to win.
Moderating his position to help the country succeed during an era of turmoil will anger Ryan’s allies. It also would put him in position to be seen as a national hero, especially if he’s the first conservative to sincerely embrace Obama’s message of renewal. For the sake of the nation, let’s hope Ryan, or someone like him, makes the move.
— Keith Schneider