The duty of the people is to tend to their own affairs. The duty of government is to help them do it. This is the pasta of politics. The inspired leader, the true prince, no matter how great, can only be sauce upon the pasta.
-- ITALO BOMBOLINIIn banging around over the MLK holiday weekend for a sage way in which to assess Barack Obama's first year as president, I found the answer literally in my lap in the form of the pithy pearl of wisdom quoted above by the hero of Robert Crichton's The Secret of Santa Vittoria, a darkly humorous novel (and later a movie starring Anthony Quinn) in which the winemaker in an southern Italian village improbably becomes mayor with the fall of Mussolini. He is an inspired choice because of his ability to not throw people out, as politicians typically do, but invite everyone in, as well as understanding the limits of his powers of persuasion.
The comparison between Bombolini and Obama quickly becomes strained, of course, but it works well insofar that both made enormous strides in their first years in office following great darkness (fascism and the Bush-Cheney administration). That noted, where Bombolini understood there is only so much the true prince can do for his people, that lesson seems to have been frequently lost on Obama. If anything has tried to do too much at a time when people need government more than ever but also resent it more than ever.
This judgment on the first anniversary of the inauguration of the first African American president is damning with faint praise to be sure.
The recession is finally in check even if joblessness remains rampant. General Motors and Chrysler are more or less back from the brink. Congress is on the verge of passing sweeping if imperfect health-care reform. Some of the excesses of the Bush Era, although by no means all, have been renounced. The first major green energy initiatives are underway. The unilateralist foreign policy that won America so many enemies has been replaced with a gentler but still firm policy. And there has been a candor and degree of vigorous debate that would have been unthinkable a year ago even if the Inside the Beltway culture of sleaze and corruption remains unchecked.
In fact, Obama's greatest failure -- bridging the partisan divide -- is not his fault at all.
No Republicans in the House and only three in the Senate supported Obama' first major initiative, the $787 billion economic stimulus package, although most of them went skittering back to their constituents to boast about the federal largess flowing into their needy states and districts, while just one Republican in the House and none in the Senate has backed health-care legislation. This was infamously hammered home by Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who shouted "You lie!" during Obama's prime-time address in September.
The president's other failure of note is that he seems to not really understand how angry and scared so many Americans are, or at least not how to effectively channel these raw emotions. Despite fears to the contrary, Obama has not been an ideologue, but despite his many worth initiatives, most are unpopular out on the hustings as the results of the special election in Massachusetts yesterday showed.
Obama needs to better understand this perverse dynamic in his second year and dial back his Everyman approach to every problem. That is to say understand that he, like Bombolini, can only be the sauce.
Top photograph by Newscom/United Press International