In the Disney animation The Tale of Despereaux, the hero is banished from Mouseworld because of his refusal to cower. As the plot thickens, Despereaux is forced to traverse a ledge strewn with deadly mousetraps in order to escape the dreary Ratworld, rescue the fair princess, and resurrect the kingdom.
Despereaux is Barak Obama, right down to the adorable ears.
The heart of the 1992 Democratic Party surge was Al Gore’s exhortation at the Democratic Convention held that year in Madison Square Garden: “It’s time for them to go!” And if they went, the ticket promised to address the multiple “deficits” (jobs, health care, education, infrastructure) keeping hard-working Americans from their promised dream.
Unfortunately, for those of us who wanted to see the Democratic Party become a progressive force, President Bill Clinton quickly shifted his focus to free trade and another deficit, the budget deficit.
The story I heard was that Bob Rubin had taken the then president-elect “to the woodshed.” “Balance the budget and the markets will purr,” counseled the economic whiz kid. And he did and they did.
Clinton’s achievements in his first two years–budget discipline and free trade–along with the colossal failure of Hillary’s baffling, corporatist health care plan, led directly to the Democratic debacle of 1994 in which the Republicans took the House for the first time in 46 years.
Thereafter, Clinton and the Democrats became the vehicle for Dick Morris-style triangulation, bringing together Republicans and Blue Dogs to end welfare (as we knew it), outlaw gay marriage, and break down the six-decade firewall between commercial and investment banking.
Unlike Bill Clinton, Barack Obama comes to office with a mandate. In 1992, Clinton snuck in with 43% of the vote. Obama won by at least 8 million votes, too many for even Karl Rove and his stable of IT saboteurs to make vanish in cyberspace. Like Clinton, Obama has solid Democratic majorities to work with in both houses. Clinton squandered this advantage; Obama must not.
The Obama phenomenon far surpassed anything seen during the Clinton campaigns. Some of the excitement was, as in 1992, about getting rid of Republicans. “It’s time for them to go” became “We can’t afford four more years of George W. Bush!” But there was more to it.
Barack Obama assumes office in a time of unparalleled challenges for the country and the planet. For the first time in my lifetime (and I was born in the year Harry Truman was elected!), the very idea of the United States of America is in question. For what would this country be if it were no longer powerful, if not the most powerful nation on earth? And that possibility is looking us right in our collective eye.
When it became clear after the first couple of years that Bill Clinton was not going to move the country in a progressive direction (in fact, the Democratic Party crashed nationwide during the Clinton years), there was still the enormous smarts and great charm of the man; those, and a weak 1996 opponent, were enough to stake him to two terms. Despite dishonoring his office and despite the fact that many of the policies that we came to hate under George W. Bush actually began with him, Bill Clinton is still much loved by his party.
But love will not be enough for Barack Obama. He must produce. If Clinton faced deficits, Obama faces chasms. Military quagmires. A broken health care system. Public education in shambles. Unprecedented income inequality, and an economy on life-support.
If in two years Obama voters feel cheated, their high hopes unfulfilled, there will be hell to pay–for the Democrats, but more importantly, for the country.
But allow me to conclude by returning to Despereaux. The subtitle of the hero-mouse’s story, appearing on the screen in the film’s opening frames, is: “A Hero Doesn’t Appear Until the World Really Needs One.”
Well, we really do!