All you need to do to understand national politics today is to watch the Minnesota Vikings. Specifically: Watch Adrian Peterson.
Peterson is an extraordinarily gifted running back who often seems to out-run and overpower whole defenses. Of course he doesn’t do it alone, and almost every time he does something great there is a key block to spring him loose. On those times when he is left to do it by himself, on those runs when his teammates have so much confidence in him that they get lulled into not throwing those key blocks, Peterson usually gets trapped behind the line. At those moments he seems very human, and the Monday Morning Quarterbacks don’t hesitate to question whether Adrian has lost his edge.
What does that have to do with national politics? Well, think about Barack Obama as Adrian Peterson.
Our president is one of the most gifted leaders we have ever seen: He has remarkable intellect and razor-sharp judgment, and he is a great speaker. We have become accustomed to watching him — like Peterson — seemingly do it alone. That’s how it often looked at those mass rallies in his overwhelming election victory.
A movement of millions
But anyone who knew about that improbable victory knew it was about much more than Barack. Team Obama was a mass movement of literally millions of members, each giving more time and money than they ever expected as they did the extraordinary blocking and tackling it took to win the presidency.
The Obama we often hear about these days sounds a lot like the Adrian Peterson criticized after one of those runs that doesn’t go anywhere: Has Obama lost his edge? Why can’t he connect with voters? What will his impact be on the midterm elections?
Each of those questions is fair, and it’s clear not everything has gone perfectly in the first two years. But it’s also equally important to step back from the personality-obsessed national media coverage to remember that all this does not sit solely on the shoulders of the president. Those millions who were part of the movement that swept George Bush and his cronies out of office should never assume bringing widespread change happens with just one election.
Instead of sitting on the couch listening to another group of pundits pontificate about whether Obama is or is not getting his message across, it’s time for each of us to help him do just that. We can stand back and let Glenn Beck tell the story about these past two years, but I prefer the truth:
Before they even took office, Obama and the new Congress were leading the country through the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.
Long list of first-term accomplishments
They started by passing groundbreaking legislation to finally protect equal pay for women, and then passed an economic-recovery package that put millions to work — police officers, firefighters, teachers, construction workers, thousands of people in new clean energy jobs.
• Secured health care coverage for 30 million Americans.
• Led groundbreaking school reforms that finally, after decades of neglect, take the tough actions we need to address a shameful achievement gap.
• Saved the American auto industry. If they hadn’t acted it’s likely not a single person would be making a car in America in 10 years. Period.
• Made college more affordable by expanding loans, cut out middlemen who made loans more expensive and let students pay off loans with services in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.
• Began rebuilding deeply battered partnerships after inheriting two wars and a world enraged by the Bush administration’s blunders.
There has been much more — like regulating Wall Street, enacting middle-class tax cuts, lifting the ban on stem cell research … the list goes on.
Our president could have sat back, relied on his sky-high approval ratings, and only tackled issues that he knew would make him popular. Instead, he set about making the kind of tough changes that our country hasn’t seen in years.
All this was done in spite of the fact that from the moment Obama was elected the Republicans in Washington voted for literally nothing the president supported. And while that was happening Obama displayed extraordinary dignity in handling the ongoing indignity of having to repeatedly answer absurdly misinformed questions about his religion and where he was born.
Ground is laid for more change
That’s a lot to accomplish in remarkably difficult circumstances, and the good news is that the ground has been laid for even better things to come. The catch is Obama didn’t do all this by himself, and he can’t do more alone either. He would be the first to say so, and I know that from personal experience:
Four years ago, well before Obama announced his candidacy, I was part of Draft Obama, a loose-knit group of volunteers around the country trying to persuade him to run. One day I wrote a post on a national blog that said something like: “Barack Obama is a great man, but this election is not about him. It’s about launching a national movement that brings millions of disenfranchised people off the couch and back into changing politics as usual.” The next day, to my great surprise, I got a call from Obama himself. He told me that the post said what he was thinking, that he wasn’t interested in a cult of personality but would run if he saw that he was in the best position to get people who had given up to get involved again.
I’ve thought about his words a lot since then, especially on those times when this remarkably gifted man seems highly fallible as he struggles to bring about change against extraordinary and unrelenting odds. He is, in fact, a great man, but this never has been and never will be only about him. He may have been a community organizer, but now that work is up to us.
Obama, like Peterson, is a superstar. But neither can carry the ball all by himself. If we first tune out the skeptics and those who never wanted him to succeed, and then get out there and work to change politics as usual, we can ensure that the best change is yet to come.
R.T. Rybak is the mayor of Minneapolis.