Columnist William Greider wrote three months into Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009 after the bank bailouts, “During the past nine months, gigantic financial bailouts amid collapsing economic life made visible the crippling divide between governing elites and citizens at large.”
“People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t,” Greider observed. “The president is now trapped between these two realms—the governing elites who decide things and the people who are governed.”
“Which side is he on?” Greider asked.
Which side was Obama on?
Obama was elected as the “change” candidate, who specifically promised to “change the culture of Washington.” Obama would not only break from the failed policies of George W. Bush, but also challenged and defeated the Clinton machine. Who takes on Hillary and Bill and wins? Even as a U.S. senator, Obama was still a relative outsider and sold himself as such.
One of best things I can say about President Obama is that he at least always seemed aware that challenging Washington convention was supposed to be his mission. But over the course of eight years, so many times that promise ended up being just posturing. More often than not, Obama seemed to side with the prevailing Washington wisdom.
For example, everything we learned about the Iraq war should have told us to stay out of Libya’s civil war in 2011. But Obama didn’t. It’s something the political class thought wise, though most Americans knew better. 2008 Obama knew better. President Obama has since called it his worst mistake.
This is just one example, but how many times did this happen in both foreign and domestic policy—President Obama acquiescing to Washington’s will instead of doing more to question it? Obama was elected to query as opposed to simply swallowing official answers. The country already saw George W. Bush do this to a tragic fault.
This time, America elected Donald Trump.
Trump might even go too far in the opposite direction in challenging Washington. If picking one extreme or the other, I find it hard to believe Trump’s path is the worst one.
Every day since the election, and certainly before, I have watched politicians and pundits scratch their heads over Trump’s unconventional style, and perhaps most importantly, his political positions.
As I type these words, I’m watching a CNN report about Trump calling NATO “obsolete.” CNN has a foreign policy analyst on to rebuke Trump. The Pentagon is defending NATO. Wall Street Journal writers have been upset with Trump for saying this in the past.
Trump is upsetting everyone.
Forget for a moment whether or not NATO is actually obsolete. That is not what this column is about. Forget about whether the U.S. should be friendlier with Vladimir Putin, our trade deals are askew, or even if an Obamacare repeal is a good idea.
This column is not about policy.
Trump is challenging virtually everything the political class thinks it knows about how America is supposed to work.
This is why most voters chose him in November, electorally if not popularly. If you talk to Trump voters, a concept foreign for much of the political elite, it doesn’t take long to discover this. It’s also why many Americans once supported Obama.
Change. People really do want it.
They want to feel like they have some sort of control over their country again, as opposed to politicians and bureaucrats doing the same old things to no apparent benefit.
People want to call BS.
“Something fundamental has been altered in American politics,” Greider observed in 2009. “Encouraged by Obama’s message of hope, agitated by darkening economic prospects, many people have thrown off sullen passivity and are trying to reclaim their role as citizens.”
“This disturbs the routines of Washington but has great potential for restoring a functioning democracy,” Greider said. “Timely intervention by the people could save the country from some truly bad ideas now circulating in Washington and on Wall Street.”
The “truly bad ideas” Americans perceive “in Washington and on Wall Street” now have a “timely intervention” in Donald Trump, who vows to “drain the swamp.”
That is why he was elected. It’s not necessarily about whether or not Trump has good or bad ideas any more than it was when the country elected Obama.
It’s a mood. Moods are why most elections are won or lost.
Right now, so many people are fed up. They have every reason to be.
And time will tell if Donald Trump becomes the change they seek.