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Obama's big regret: he lost on politics

The irony of Obama’s presidency: he won on policy but lost on politics.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Barack Obama's final State of the Union was a celebration of his presidency's many achievements — and an admission of its most fundamental failure.

In 2008, Obama's promise was simple: He would pass sweeping policy changes by bridging the deep divisions in American politics. Eight years later, the irony is clear: He passed sweeping policy changes by widening the deep divisions in American politics.

Obama pushed more change through the political system than any serious observer expected: He passed health care reform, as well as the largest stimulus and investment package in American history, and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms (which are working better than most realize). He brought the Iraq War to a close, reopened relations with Cuba, killed Osama bin Laden, and signed the Paris climate deal. It's a record of achievement that dwarfs most modern presidencies.

But those victories came at a cost. The debates were frequently bitter, the votes routinely partisan, and the executive actions wildly controversial. As Reid Cherlin, a former White House press staffer, wrote in Rolling Stone, the devil's bargain of the Obama administration was they "accomplish[ed] much of what Obama promised to do, even if accomplishing it helped speed the process of partisan breakdown."

President Obama Delivers His Last State Of The Union Address To Joint Session Of Congress
They're usually not this friendly.
Photo by Evan Vucci - Pool/Getty Images

Obama admitted his failure at Tuesday's State of the Union. "It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency ," he said, " that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better." The brighter future Americans deserve "will only happen if we fix our politics."

There were moments in the speech when the depths of Obama's disillusionment shone through. "Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens," Obama warned. The observation seems so obvious as to be banal, until you realize that the president of the United States felt compelled to remind the country that a bare modicum of trust is necessary for the continued functioning of its political system. And then it seems terrifying.

This is not how Obama sounded when he burst onto the national political scene. "The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats," he said in 2004. "But I've got news for them too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states."

Back then, Obama suggested the divisions in America were largely illusory — the work of shortsighted pundits, or special interests, or cynical politicians. Back then, Obama saw the country's basic bonds as certain and its disagreements as comparatively superficial, perhaps even mistaken. He ran a campaign promising to bring Americans back together, and when he won it seemed like proof that Americans wanted to be brought together — that they, too, were tired of being diced into red and blue, liberal and conservative, pro and con.

And then Obama became the most polarizing president since the dawn of polling.

Partisan approval rating final

The trend predates Obama. Before him, the most polarizing president since the dawn of polling was George W. Bush. Before Bush, it was Bill Clinton. Before Clinton, it was Ronald Reagan.

The forces driving the parties apart are bigger than any one president. The Republican Party used to make space for liberals while the Democratic Party was home to many conservatives. In 1994, for instance, only 58 percent of politically engaged Republicans and 35 percent of politically engaged Democrats were highly ideological. But those days are over. Today, more than 70 percent of politically engaged Democrats and Republicans are highly ideological.

American politics, it turns out, can make even a president feel powerless. "It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter," Obama admitted.

The use of "our" there is telling. Obama commands the bully pulpit. He spoke those words in a nationally televised address that preempted normal network programming. Even after all he has accomplished, even after eight years in which he dominated American politics, he counts himself among those inclined to believe that politics is hopeless.

"If we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a congressman or a senator or even a president," Obama said, in what sounded like a direct rebuke to the high expectations of his 2008 campaign. "We have to change the system to reflect our better selves."

Obama is an optimist. He has not given up hope in politics. He still believes that the American people can rise up and take back their system. But hope is not a plan. And the truth is, Obama doesn't have a plan to fix American politics. He knows, better than most, how hard the problem actually is. So all he's left with is, yes, the audacity of hope.