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Capitol Idea: Sometimes, Patience Pays Off

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Politicians, especially presidents, have a habit of asking voters for their patience. Voters can be capricious in return in extending that forbearance.  It doesn't matter if it's war, the economy, or another vexing bother, if things aren't going well presidents ask us to be patient.  Too often, such requests are nothing more than a dodge, a feint to put off paying some political price or other. At times, though, the appeals for a measure of national fortitude are entirely rational and justified.  Sometimes effecting change in our government — even change that seems like common sense — can be difficult. There are many reasons for this, but often, the checks and balances that the framers specifically built in to make our government slow to move by design are at the root .

But patience isn't always easy. If it were, it wouldn't be much of a virtue now, would it? (Breathing and eating, by contrast, are usually easy but rarely described as virtues).  So patience may be a virtue, but in politics, it all depends upon the leader in whom we invest our collective tolerance. In other words, will our patience be rewarded?

George W. Bush asked for, and tested, our patience often. But with two mismanaged wars, the bungled Hurricane Katrina recovery, missteps and lapses of all sorts, Bush rarely delivered.

Barack Obama, too, has sought a level of patience more than once as signs loom that many are growing impatient with his leadership. While not as angry as the disquiet on the right, even the president's erstwhile allies among the left have become restive. On one level, agitation on the left is fully understandable as there is so much to be done, and the current Democratic dominance clearly presents the strongest opportunity to do so. On another level, though, impatience among progressives may be ill-timed and may be hampering Obama unnecessarily. Case in point: the president was hammered from the left for months, accused of supporting draconian policies regarding secrecy and national security not much different than Bush's'. The administration indicated those policies were still a work in progress — stay tuned — but many progressives wouldn't give Obama any benefit of the doubt.

A funny thing happened this week, though, as the administration announced a new policy that makes it much more difficult for the government to hide state secrets, and in the process, making the government dramatically more accountable.  Might progressives have been better served by the administration holding  its fire on this one?

My point here isn't to call out a cheap "I told you so." Rather, it's to suggest that although reforms may not be manifesting in the chronology or the form any one of us necessarily would prefer (for all we know, they aren't even occurring the way Obama once foresaw — he may be practicing his own patience!), if we step back, we see reform is indeed taking hold. 

When does Obama deserve some patience, and dare I even suggest, trust among progressives?  A generation ago, Ronald Reagan succeeded in pushing his conservative agenda because the right so trusted Reagan that they showed much patience with him. That gave Reagan valuable political maneuvering room.  We progressives, by contrast, seem bent on keeping Obama on a short leash. Maybe we should unleash Obama more to reach much of the success in a progressive sense that Reagan achieved on the right.

To be clear, I am not suggesting the left stand aside, a kind of passive blind faith. The challenge is to engage with the administration in a constructive way to advance policy without coming off as petulant.  The end-games on health care reform, climate change, the war in Afghanistan are just the issues up now. We have at least three more years to go (one would hope more than seven).  That being the case, we on the left have to realize we may well get at least much of what we want — but we might not always get it when we want.  As this week's policy announcement proves, with Barack Obama, good things do come to those who wait.

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