The Way it Was

Shortly after Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States, I was invited to a dinner at the Lebanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. in honor of Ray LaHood. LaHood had just been named as Secretary of Transportation, and the Embassy was proud that the grandson of Lebanese immigrants had been named to serve in the new President’s cabinet. It was, in many ways, a special night that captured the mood of Washington in early 2009.

The nation was in shock, facing the prospect of collapse of the financial sector. With the homes of millions of Americans threatened by foreclosure, with the stock market in a deep decline putting pension funds at risk, and with unemployment rising, Americans were reeling. Instead of giving way to despair or cynicism, the newly elected President was ushered into office by voters who responded to his promise to restore hope and change the political culture of Washington. Our night at the Embassy spoke to that hope and change.

Ray LaHood had been a prominent establishment Republican Congressman, who had presided over the session of Congress that voted to impeach then-President Bill Clinton. Before being elected to Congress he had served as Chief of Staff to then Republican Minority Leader, Bob Michel. In the House of Representatives, LaHood became known as a moderate and a bridge-builder. He had co-hosted dinners with Democratic colleagues in an effort to promote bi-partisan understanding and cooperation. And so his selection to serve in the new President’s cabinet was not surprising. It was a recognition of both his and the new President’s commitment to changing the way Washington worked.

In fact, that spirit was so contagious back then that even some of the more partisan Democrats and Republicans were singing off the same page. One incident at that Embassy dinner comes to mind. During the after-dinner remarks, a Lebanese-American GOP Congressman, Darrell Issa, rose to offer a toast not only to the new Secretary, but the new President, saying that he hoped that Barack Obama would have not "four, but eight years in the White House.” He went on to explain that he deliberately intended "eight", since being reelected to a second term would mean that the President had been successful in turning the country around, and that his success was important for the country and was a goal that should unite us all. That was the mood in Washington that night. 

As I have listened to the increasingly harsh political rhetoric coming from Republicans, I have thought back to that night and that spirit of cooperation, and wondered where it all went.

The turnabout came early on, with agitators like talk radio host Rush Limbaugh declaring that he hoped Obama would fail as President. This was followed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pronouncement that his number one goal in the Congress was to ensure that the President was defeated. Then came the birth of the angry Tea Party with its wild suggestions of Obama’s "foreign birth" and allegations that his health care reform program would include "death panels" that would condemn senior citizens to an early demise.   

That sense that it was more important to defeat the President than to save the country has now borne fruit. After a few early successes that slowed the downturn and saved the jobs and homes of hundreds of thousands, partisan politics have sabotaged Obama’s more recent efforts to move the country forward. And now that the country has moved full-tilt into its quadrennial election mode, the harshness of the political rhetoric has only increased, as Republicans in Congress and candidates for President display less concern with problem-solving than they do with scoring points with partisan attacks. Blocking the Administration’s proposals to invest in job creation while complaining that "Obama hasn’t created new jobs," has become a campaign mantra. Michele Bachmann has made a crowd pleasing chant of her "I will make Barack Obama a one term President" and her colleagues routinely use the taunt "where did the hope and change go?"  

Quite simply, they were stomped on and thrown out the window. That initial spirit reflected by Congressman Issa of wanting "what’s best for the country" quickly gave way to working toward "what’s best for my narrow partisan advantage"–and the effects are in evidence all around. The angry Tea Party has become a dominant player in the Republican party; the Occupy Wall Street movement has been born reflecting the anger and frustration among people on the left; Washington is hopelessly dysfunctional, with Congress unable (or unwilling) to "agree on lunch";  and meanwhile, the economy continues to stagger and the well-being of millions hangs in the balance.

I can’t help but long for the spirit of that night at the Embassy almost three years ago, because I fear that the paralysis in Congress and the notion that "if the President succeeds, we have lost" will be with us for a long time to come.