“I’ve been thinking about getting back into politics.”
“I think that’s great, man. I think it’s about time. You probably mean the House, but I think you should consider the Senate seat in Illinois in two years; I can help raise money.”
“No, I wasn’t thinking about the Senate. I was thinking about the White House.”
“Hey, Leo, I swear to God there’s no one I’d rather see in the Oval Office than you, but if you run there’s going to be a lot of discussion about Valium and alcohol. I mean, it’s going to come out; this is the world.”
“Yeah. See, I wasn’t thinking about me.”
“I’ve been walking around in a kind of daze for two weeks and everywhere I go – planes, trains, restaurants, meetings – I find myself scribbling something down.”
Bartlet for America. Out of every moment from Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant political drama The West Wing, the one I remember most is the scene between then-New Hampshire Gov. Jed Bartlet and Leo McGarry, where Leo pitches the idea of running for president to Jed. The scene resonates with me because of the genuineness of the moment. It almost seems absurd, the idea that a man could run for the presidency – not to mention win the presidency – without having thought about running before someone else brought it up. It feels out of place to us, arguably even disingenuous, because people believe every move is politically calculated. It seems like somebody always trying to get to the next rung on the ladder.
I’ve been told I’m a West Wing guy living in a House of Cards world, but I think we need to give more credit to our leaders and our republic. I believe, now more than ever, that America needs a leader who can restore our faith in what appears to be an increasingly dysfunctional government.
This wouldn’t be the first time Americans went to the polls hoping to find that kind of leader. In 2008, voters flocked en masse to President Barack Obama because he was seen as a figure who “could take America – finally – past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us,” according to a 2007 op-ed in The Atlantic. He was seen as a transcendent political figure, a uniter. But just like many others before him, President Obama became bogged down in the muck and mire of Washington, D.C., unable to pass the full health care reform bill he originally proposed, unable to pass cap and trade legislation, unable to pass immigration reform, unable to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center, unable to pass additional economic stimulus, and unable to break a level of partisan gridlock not seen in more than a century.
So much for change we can believe in, many Americans said in response. Yet, Mitt Romney was hardly the bold leader America was looking for when President Obama’s approval numbers dipped below 50 percent heading into the 2012 presidential election.
The American people were forced to redefine President Obama when they entered the voting booths. While President Obama could not claim to be the “change we can believe in,” he could claim to be the “change that has just yet to deliver.” So the American people decided “President Obama, Part II” was worth a shot. More than a year into his second term, it seems nothing has changed. In fact, there has not been a single major legislative accomplishment since the start of President Obama’s second term. Try and think of one. You can’t. The last major legislative agreement was reached on Jan. 1, 2013, at the end of the lame-duck session of Congress, when the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 was passed and signed into law the next day.
President Obama has neither the respect of the Republican Party nor his own party – which might be the biggest problem. Any legislative proposal from the White House is almost universally ignored. This is a failure on the part of the president to keep the channels of communication open with the members of his party in the legislative branch. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama have found themselves increasingly at odds since 2011, at least until the two finally sat down in October 2013 and talked through their issues. Imagine going two years without having a clear and functioning dialogue with your party’s foremost leader in the legislature. That is the definition of failing to lead.
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans have grown tired of trying to negotiate with the president, as past discussions have consistently fallen apart. Mark Halperin and John Heilemann highlight this in “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” as they detail House Speaker John Boehner spending countless hours in 2011 meeting secretly with President Obama to develop a “grand budget” solution. The proposal was unbelievably close to materializing when the negotiations fell apart in a matter of minutes. Since then, the relationship between the two has not been anywhere near as productive, further limiting President Obama’s ability to work with the legislature.
Interestingly, White House press secretary Jay Carney addressed the issue of the president’s relationship with Speaker Boehner last week, saying it was not as important as many made it out to be.
I think it’s a press misconception that the success or failure of legislation in Congress depends on the relationship between a president and a speaker, or a president and a leader in Congress. The president’s relationship with the speaker, as the speaker has said and the president has said, is – has always been solid. And the problem we’ve had in the past here in Washington has been often the dictation that has been provided by a segment of the House Republican Congress over what the House of Representatives would or would not do.
While it is fair to argue that the more conservative members of the Republican Party have prevented some deals from being reached, that does not justify the president’s inability to unite the more mainstream members of both parties to make legislative accomplishments a reality. The greatest presidents in this country’s history brought together the reasonable members of both parties based on a belief in one simple principle: “Let’s leave the country behind better than we found it.”
We need a Jed Bartlet in the White House now more than ever, somebody who can come into Washington, D.C. without a personal agenda and restart a discussion that has been silent for too long. I want a real person who is willing to have a dialogue with those in power, because people don’t talk enough in today’s world anymore. We’re all too busy trying to compose our next witty Tweet, our next viral Facebook post. If Washington politicians would just put down their phones and spend a little more time talking to one another face to face, maybe something would actually get accomplished.
America needs a president willing to sit down and talk through the big problems. Troubling times call for a leader strong enough to break the gridlock. We can no longer allow it to be acceptable to say, “We tried and failed.” We’re better than that, and we should demand the same from our government. Let’s hope we can put a person in the White House by 2016 who gives us back the country we know and love, because right now it is being held hostage by underachievers, claiming to fight for the American Dream while watching it slip away for millions by their own inaction.
It’s time to overcome the optimism deficit in America, and it starts at the voting booth on Election Day.