After half a decade of neoconservative war-making, light broke through where no one saw it coming, and Democrats took back Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008.
It was a moment much like today, marked by trepidation over where we were going and a giddy frisson over the prospect of reversing course.
The possibility of transformation breathed wind in the sails of a liberal party that had lost its purpose, as the country looked forward to a more progressive future. And the new Obama presidency lay at the heart of it all, bringing to public discourse an intelligence and tolerance not seen in years, along with incremental progressive reforms.
But it never really seemed enough, and so all too many of us withdrew from politics in frustration, leading us to where we are today—with Republicans controlling all three branches of government, led by a president with the instincts of a tyrant.
A decade of partisan warfare has nearly erased from memory the inspiration that gripped the nation, but it seemed we might finally come together to accomplish great things. Health care and banking reform were progressive goals, but everyone knew something had to give—and we could all agree the war in Iraq needed to end and the country’s infrastructure needed an overhaul.
It sometimes seemed the only thing that held us back was the ability to work together. The partisan climate led to hard lines and sabotage, so it was not too much to believe a president who could think big and reach across the aisle might accomplish great things.
And yet, Obama seemed capable of something yet more miraculous, expressing why we needed compromise without himself becoming personally compromised in the process.
And it sometimes seemed he might reach so far across the aisle he would unite everyone from the center-right to the far-left in one great supermajority that would govern the country for decades. People forget that while Obama had many progressive goals, he went out on a limb to retain several holdovers from the Bush administration in his own, after all.
But Republicans had a secret weapon that would blow it all up.
We were a house divided, and the foundations were crumbling, much as they are today. Yet, it would just get worse when, following a meeting of the Republican leadership early in his first term, they settled on a strategy of blocking everything, setting repeated records for use of the filibuster.
And it would just get even worse when the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court smashed down the wall between money and power with the Citizens United decision in 2011.
Now everyone needed to drink from the same flood of money just to survive; and while Democrats might not have made the rules, all too many needed to play by them to win—and the new rule was that you had to spend big, which meant raising more money from the very people who had just taken the economy to the brink of destruction.
The corruption of motives further damaged a party whose electoral victories had been built on high hopes, dashed upon the hard realities of a nation with increasingly diminished expectations.
Obama got started in the early stages of the worst recession in almost a century, and much of his political capital was spent saving the economy from collapse. This meant bailing out the banks while middle class home owners watched their mortgages go under. But while there were alternative approaches, it is easy to forget how undeveloped they appeared at the time.
All the sensible people were saying if the banks were not bailed out, the economy itself would go under; so we found ourselves throwing money at the very people who had been stealing it from us in the first place.
And when it came time to prosecute the bankers, the justice department lacked the legal resources to win a single case.
Meanwhile, climate action was sporadic, health care reform partial. But while many came away disillusioned, those who were watching closely saw victory continually pulled from the jaws of defeat. Obama brought greenhouse gas emissions down to levels not seen since 1994, passed a health care reform package for which we had waited generations.
And yet, the appetite for change was bigger, and when the bigger changes failed to appear, his base of support dried up, making it ever harder to lead winning campaigns.
All the while, the country was mired in two wars from which it could not seem to extricate itself. Troops were reduced in Afghanistan, and the Taliban began taking over; and when they were pulled from Iraq, Isis began committed genocide against the Yezidis. This prompted Obama to send the troops back in, stopping a genocide cold for the first time ever in modern history.
And yet, no one seemed to notice—to his anti-war base it just looked like more of the same.
Sometimes all you can do is keep your finger in the dam until the waters subside, but the hopes vested in Obama meant the demands were greater, and Republicans exploited liberal expectations to their advantage. And so we turned against the source of our inspiration, and a new cynicism crept in where dreams once flourished.
Frustrated expectations resulted in low turnouts at midterm elections, and as Democratic majorities dried up, it became ever harder to accomplish anything at all. But it was not until Republicans took over every branch of government and most state houses that their radically different vision for the nation became clear.
Trump has now made it clear that Republicans hate not only liberals, but the liberal democratic order through which his own party came to power, and they will do whatever it takes to hold onto power, democracy be damned. Trump has demonstrated precisely what Obama was up against and why he needed major grassroots support if he was to get anything accomplished.
There is an old saying that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but the contrast could not have been greater with Obama, who was forced to govern like a Machiavellian, because his Republican colleagues created an environment in which he had to constantly watch his back.
It was a toxic environment in which citizens increasingly saw toxic political leaders on both sides.
But beneath the fighting, there were good people struggling for decency and justice. There were reasonable people working to spur innovation, halt global warming, increase health care coverage, diminish inequality, and bring about a more reasonable national discourse, more respectful of science and rooted in hard facts.
But the left has learned from many of its mistakes and can do better this time around.
The first mistake was the idea that a single charismatic leader might make it happen all on his own. The second was the belief that we might achieve these goals in a single generation. But perhaps the biggest mistake was the failure to comprehend the forces Obama was up against, which we are all confronting now.
Winning in the midterms will not restore civility to the nation—winning again in 2020 might not even do the trick. But we can hold back the dam and make things a little better. And maybe, just maybe, if we dream big and work hard, we can bring about a genuine transformation, bringing the nation together to take care of real and pressing problems, increasingly felt by us all.
And we have mobilized the masses toward this end. Tens of millions of people have now been mobilized to protect their democratic rights and freedoms, and the lessons they have learned in the last two years will not be forgotten easily.
The odds may be against us, and America may be the next in a long series of collapsing empires, but it is time we stopping treating decline as inevitable, when the question of whether or not it occurs is thoroughly within our grasp.
It is time we dream big again and vote. It is time we breathe deep again and know we are on the right side of history. It is time we make a bend in the river of history and harness the energy of our highest aspirations.
Nothing is certain in life, after all, not even death and taxis if the futurists are right.
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