To sit in your dorm room and believe you can change the world may be a certain kind of American collegiate tradition, akin to tailgating at Homecoming, taking Bob Marley seriously, and holding your roommate’s head over the toilet bowl after his first frat party. Yet as I paced around my Bard College dorm room on a freezing February night in 2007, on a conference call with other students across the country hoping to organize ourselves for Barack Obama’s nascent presidential campaign, I was convinced of only one thing: we were not going to change the world. Obama might be a generational spokesman, he might invoke the memory of John Kennedy, but he was facing the most powerful family in Democratic politics, as an inexperienced liberal senator from a major city. And he was black. Why should young people get behind such a futile cause? Why should anyone?
I arrived in Washington four months later, wet behind the ears and perhaps a bit over eager to begin work at Democracy, the liberal political quarterly that had hired me out of college. I had gotten my job by cold-calling Democracy. Over my winter break I had made a list of about twenty places where I wanted to work and called each one. Democracy appealed to me because it is built on the notion that the center Left needs to think about ideas and policy at least as much as it does about strategy. The journal, I hoped, could be part of a movement not only to restore liberalism but to restore the importance of liberal ideas in Washington. About Obama, I was a cynic. About Washington, I was an idealist who believed that it could change for the better.
I was going against the tide. True, the Bush administration was on its way out, and the Democrats had taken control of Congress, but cynicism and self-loathing were everywhere, like inescapable dust particles. Since at least Watergate, nearly every major presidential contender had run against “Washington,” holding up the capital as the impetus and the symptom of our national ailments. The Bush presidency, for which gross incompetence and unfathomable corruption were part of the furniture, only compounded all this. Hurricane Katrina, Jack Abramoff, and the Iraq War all confirmed that Washington was as sick as everyone had always believed. Sickness, of course, becomes even more of a problem as you age. As 2007 ended, Washington was an old city. Its most powerful players—Robert Novak was still alive, Bob Dole was one of the most powerful lobbyists, and Dick Cheney was still in office—were also its most ancient. Even its less powerful players, the nameless lobbyists, PR mavens, and political hacks that populated its offices and restaurants, were old, and quite tired.
No restaurant better exemplified this Washington than Old Ebbitt Grill. The most important thing about Old Ebbitt Grill is its age. SINCE 1856, it proudly proclaims. In other words, although it’s in close proximity to Ford’s Theatre, the Grill predates the night that ensured Ford’s infamy. The Grill is also located a few blocks away from the White House, which made it a gathering place for Bush White House staffers. At the end of the day, you could come across a parade of mostly lower-level Bushians marching into Ebbitt to chow down on the inedible food. You could also find many tourists, who had been alerted to this ritual and came to witness it. Such was Washington at the end of the Bush years: people crowded into a terrible old restaurant, watching a gang of crooks eat steak.
The liberals and their elected allies were hardly better. Their problem was not so much the fear as the trembling. They were shocked that power again was within their reach and assumed their grip on it was tenuous. Obviously Bush had been a disaster, and thus an enormous gift to his ideological opponents. Since losing Congress thirteen years before, Democrats had been fighting for their political lives. So they approached everything with great caution. Nightmares of 1994—when the party’s overreach doomed it—danced in their heads. No wonder that, among so many Washington Democrats, Obama’s campaign was simply a non-starter. The Clintons, God bless ‘em, knew how to win. They were the sure thing. Obama didn’t have a shot, and everybody knew it but him. As the Iowa caucuses loomed, I was told by one friend on the Obama campaign that this sputtering was all part of the plan. Obama’s team meant, à la Muhammad Ali, to play rope-a-dope with Hillary Clinton, to let her expend her resources and peak too early. I told my friend, in exceedingly polite terms, that his desperation was unbecoming.
But then a funny thing happened, or rather, a series of them. Clinton lost Iowa and squeaked by in New Hampshire. The two campaigns matched each other for the next five months, each one piling up victory after victory, But it was merely a delay of the inevitable. Because of his razor-thin edge in the delegate count, Barack Obama was the Democratic nominee for president. Yet even then, with the wind at their backs, liberals were most comfortable when they appeared to be losing. In late August of 2008, when Obama’s poll numbers had hit a funk, I went to a discussion at the Center for American Progress, a notable liberal think tank. The speaker at the event, John Podesta, had already been tapped by Obama to lead the transition process that would occur should Obama win. Podesta had written a book that he hoped to talk about that afternoon; instead, what those in attendance wanted to talk about were the failures of the Obama campaign. “Why can’t we win? What’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with America?” asked a chorus of naysayers and worrywarts. Recent history had taught us to expect the worst.
When the economy cratered shortly thereafter, what had seemed to me impossible in my dorm room eighteen months earlier actually happened. Barack Obama, the young black liberal from Chicago, the anointed spokesman of a generation, was elected to the presidency of the United States. How and why this happened will be debated for decades; the mere fact of its occurrence was surprising enough, and indeed, quite stirring. The cynics were most stunned of all. Their worldview had been smashed. On election night, I saw a group of white frat boys sporting Georgetown University apparel—six months prior, they probably aspired to dine at Old Ebbitt—galloping in celebration alongside a group of taxi drivers, none of them white, freshly emerged from their cars. Horns blared, and the roads crowded with people. I tried to sleep, but was kept awake by the joy erupting on Eighteenth Street. My roommates went to the White House gate to continue the party and watched people crowd surf, as if they were at the best and most important show of their lives.
The election invigorated Washington. The city acquired a youthful glow. Young people poured in. Those who had been on the campaign trail were greeted as conquering kings and queens. Moving vans seemed to be on every street corner, unloading the baggage of one ambitious idealist after another. Some had jobs promised to them in the administration; most did not. But it didn’t matter. The point was to be here. On the weekend of Obama’s inauguration, nearly thirty people gathered into the four-bedroom house I shared in Adams Morgan, one of Washington’s youngest and most raucous neighborhoods. We were a temporary boarding house for the most overjoyed, who planned to wake up at dawn on January 20 and catch a glimpse, along with a million other people, of History. One friend spent the night on the bathroom floor. There was no other space available.
What explained Obama’s appeal to people of our generation? So many things, big and small. He had an iPod; he not only listened to Jay-Z, but could emulate his moves. He was a politician, of course, but strangely not political—a scholar; a writer; more like the smartest, coolest guy you’d ever met or perhaps even gone to school with yourself, than anyone’s idea of a fuddy-duddy presidential candidate. And he was black. His election offered the opportunity to make history, to unshackle a nation from its centuries of suffering and agonizing over race. Obama offered a chance to do something heroic, and those of us who grew up after the great victories of the civil rights movement thought ourselves particularly well suited for heroism. To us, race mattered, and it didn’t matter; many of our heroes, influences, and role models were black. Our president ought to be, too.
There was something vaguely messianic about all this, as the critics frequently charged. But the critics missed the point, which was that the messianic quality of Obama came from his vagueness. He desired to change everything, to uproot Washington and replace it with something…well, different, of course, but also better, and all-encompassing, so that our politics would become not something to be shirked but embraced. Like every other candidate in memory, Obama ran against Washington. Unlike them, he seemed to mean it. Because of his unique background, not to mention his extraordinary talents, he seemed capable of following through on his promises. We weren’t sure exactly what he wanted, but we knew that he, like us, agreed that the nation’s capital was the source of many of the nation’s problems. This is why Washington did not like Obama. This is also why he won the presidency.
Messianism extracts a price. The illusion shatters. He who is venerated is revealed to be distinctly more human than we imagined. Such has been the case with Obama. It is little more than a year since he took the oath of office, and the public attitude toward him has soured. What has he done to disappoint us so? Theodore Lowi, the political scientist, has argued that our modern conception of the presidency is the problem; we expect the impossible of the people we elect. Obama, Lowi mused just after the inauguration, “excels in all that we require in a president and he’ll fail, precisely because he’s president.” Obama’s tenure has been blocked by Congress, and several moderate Senate Democrats in particular, who hold the president’s policy agenda hostage via the filibuster and other, less visible forms of intransigence and protest.
But even a concerted effort to make Washington more accountable, and more democratic—to help fulfill Obama’s broad promise of change—will not be enough, I fear. Whom Washington is accountable to matters. After all, the opposition of any Democratic or Republican politician to Obama’s agenda is, in part, motivated by the opposition of his or her constituents. The enthusiasm for the Obama campaign was predicated on the theory that Washington is the epicenter of our politics and so we needed to elect someone to cleanse it. Then, our body politic would be repaired. This theory has been proven false. Furious passions are also generated elsewhere, far away from Washington—passions that can undo a presidency.
In 1978, in the pages of National Review, the conservative writer Rick Brookhiser exhorted his compatriots to focus on changing Washington, to invade its intellectual institutions and tilt the city’s culture sharply to the right. Ronald Reagan certainly helped bring the conservatives closer to this goal. The charge for liberals of my generation, I have come to think, will be the opposite. We have always been idealists who are realistic about power. For those of us who descended on this city in order to change it, the most realistic thing to do may be to turn around and head back to where so much power resides—at the local level. But when there, we must do more than call for pulling the lever in one direction instead of another; we must work to affect people‘s most cherished beliefs.
Only then will we have a chance to do more than elect a president. We might actually be able to change the world.
Ethan Porter is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He was born in New Jersey in 1985.