In his column today Paul Krugman notices that, just as the Republican Party seems to be imploding and the Democrats are in the midst of a contentious presidential primary, President Obama’s overall approval numbers are rising. He goes on to catalogue some of this President’s most significant successes and then affirms that there is still a lot to do. He ends with this:
The lesson of the Obama years, in other words, is that success doesn’t have to be complete to be very real. You say you want a revolution? Well, you can’t always get what you want — but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.
It struck me that the old Rolling Stones tune perfectly captures the angst of the left that is perpetually “disappointed” in Obama. Let’s take a look at a couple of current events where – to the extent anyone is actually paying attention – that is happening right now.
First of all, as I noted previously, President Obama recently commuted the sentences of 61 additional individuals via his Clemency Initiative, bringing his total to 248 – more than the previous 6 presidents combined. Bryan Schatz focuses on the fact that we’re not getting what we want.
Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel, wrote in a blog post that Obama will continue his relatively aggressive pace of commutations during the remainder of his presidency. But his administration is still far from the goal it announced as part of a clemency initiative in 2011, when former Attorney General Eric Holder said that some 10,000 prisoners “were potentially going to be released.”
While that was a pretty ambitious goal set out by the former Attorney General, no where in his article does Schatz mention the fact that, due to this administration’s efforts, many of those who might be eligible for commutations are now being considered for the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act – which will affect over 14,000 individuals. Nor does he acknowledge that one of the goals of the Clemency Initiative is to highlight the problem and push for Congressional action on criminal justice reform. When those of us on the left fail to join the administration in that effort and, instead, simply focus on their failure to reach this ambitious goal, it is no wonder we remain “disappointed.”
Secondly, David Corn recently wrote about President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit. He too focused his attention on not getting what we want.
Obama has done more than any other world leader to highlight the urgent need for enhancing nuclear security. But this is the big connect-the-dots reality: the world cannot be free of nuclear terrorism unless it is free of nuclear weapons. That fundamental truth is not clear and present at this historic summit.
I will simply remind you what President Obama said about that.
I said in Prague that achieving the security and peace of a world without nuclear weapons will not happen quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime. But we have begun. As the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons, the United States has a moral obligation to continue to lead the way in eliminating them. Still, no one nation can realize this vision alone. It must be the work of the world.
We’re clear-eyed about the high hurdles ahead, but I believe that we must never resign ourselves to the fatalism that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable. Even as we deal with the realities of the world as it is, we must continue to strive for our vision of the world as it ought to be.
What strikes me is that – especially in these two examples – this President has set the bar pretty high. Prior to his doing that, there wasn’t a lot of talk on the left about actually upending the entire clemency process or envisioning a world without nuclear weapons. But he put those two powerfully progressive goals on the table. And then he has worked for years to reach them.
When the response of some of the folks on his side is to constantly point out the fact that we’re not there yet rather than celebrate the successes along the way and try to figure out if we can engage to move the ball further down the field, we spread the kind of cynicism that impedes progress.
The Stones were right. You can’t always get what you want. But it’s also true that if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.