WASHINGTON — Presidents are judged not only by the things they do but also by how successful they are in influencing the actions of the presidents who follow.
Leaders who want their achievements to endure know their task includes changing the terms of the national debate and leaving behind an intellectual legacy that shapes how future generations see the country and its possibilities.
Franklin D. Roosevelt accomplished this. So did Ronald Reagan. President Obama traveled Wednesday to Knox College in Illinois to give the speech that launched his effort to join them. It was where, in 2005, he originally laid out his philosophy of government.
Obama is making this bid in the face of a political culture that is far more cynical than it was in the days of FDR or the Gipper. He confronts adversaries determined to move the country in exactly the opposite direction from the one he would have it choose. And up to now, the president has been foiled or distracted whenever he has tried to focus the public conversation on reversing rising inequality and restoring social mobility.
So why should his latest effort be any different? Here are three reasons.
First, Obama and his advisors have learned from past failures. Earlier speeches along these lines came and went, barely causing a ripple in the public’s consciousness. This time, the president is embarking on an eight-week campaign to keep his themes at the center of the debate. He wants to bend the news cycle rather than bow to it.
By giving a series of addresses that include specific proposals — some old, some new — he hopes to grab the public’s attention, and the media’s. His grassroots operation will mobilize supporters to talk up these themes with their neighbors. Whatever else it is, this campaign is not a one-off.
Second, he will be speaking to a country that’s fed up with the mean, narrow and pessimistic tone emanating from a capital locked in what Obama called “short-term thinking and stale debates.” The president’s critics have said over and over that he needs to “go big” and push the system beyond itself. Even his friends have been frustrated at his difficulty in seizing the initiative and confronting obstructionist opponents. He appears to have listened.
But the most important reason this offensive has a chance is that it goes to the heart of why Obama got elected in the first place and then won re-election. A substantial American majority just doesn’t buy the ideas that Obama forcefully rejected: that “inequality is both inevitable and just” and that “an unfettered free market without any restraints inevitably produces the best outcomes, regardless of the pain and uncertainty imposed on ordinary families.”