One might have imagined that the slaughter of school children in Connecticut would have been a moment for Americans to come together in a moment of national unity. And it may well have been -- momentarily. Just consider the polls. Nine in 10 Democrats, more than eight in 10 Republicans and independents, and almost nine in 10 Americans who live in households with guns supported expanded background checks. Still, on April 17, the Senate by a vote of 54-46, with a handful of Democrats joining the Republicans, fell shy of the 60 votes needed to pass the measure.
The moment succumbed to what Rutgers political scientist Ross K. Baker described as a "textbook example of intensity trumping preference." In the rough and tumble world of gun lobbying, the parents of those children and teachers lost at Newtown never had a chance. It takes more than just public opinion to effect change. "Polls," Baker added, "just don't translate into public policy."
Big change requires big leaders
It's no coincidence that America's three greatest presidents coincided with the three greatest challenges the nation has faced -- the birth of the republic, the civil war, and the Great Depression. A crisis can present a leader with an opportunity -- but he still has to seize it.
Barack Obama is already a historic president. No doubt, he would like to become a great one. This is unlikely, partly because circumstances at home and abroad won't let him, and partly because of his own limitations.
The good news is that Obama has learned much in his first four years in office. He isn't going to be a transformative president who transcends partisan politics and changes the world at home and abroad. The fact is, he's really been a Niebuhrian all along. And there's evidence that the president knows it. Here's what he told New York Times columnist David Brooks that he learned from the man that he described as one of his favorite philosophers:
"I take away," Obama said, "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense that we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism."
Obama is neither a utopian idealist nor a cynical realist. He's constantly striving for rationality in a political world that doesn't always offer it up, and searching for some kind of elusive golden mean.
The president's real challenge -- and ours too -- is that he can't seem to find that balance. Forget about transformation; we can't manage the basic transactions -- pragmatic fixes on gun control, the budget, entitlements, taxes, and immigration reform. Yet we must. Because Niebuhr was right. We simply cannot allow the proximate to become the enemy of the perfect. America's future depends on it.