A contemplative and at times somber President Barack Obama took to the stage at American University last night for an interview with Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball.” The interview
in many respects showed a different president than the man who first took office in 2008. The big smile wrapped around a canyon of teeth was nowhere to be found. The well of wit, charm, and dry comebacks was dry. And his shortly cropped hair was noticeably grayer.
Obama talked frankly about the formidable challenge he’s had working with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, his concerns about a growing inequality gap, and the risks posed by an increasingly cynical culture. Americans not only mistrust their government, he noted, but less than half the country’s eligible voters go to the polls and fewer young people pursue civil service.
Government can’t solve every large problem, Obama said, but it can help in ways that individual citizens on their own frequently can’t.
Obama also acknowledged that the roll out of the Affordable Care Act’s website was badly fumbled, while stressing the importance of having health insurance.
In all, Obama didn't say much we haven’t heard him say before. He talked about the NSA leaks, voting in mid-term elections, and humbly compared the job of the president to rolling a large rock up a hill. Matthews, who is clearly a huge Obama supporter, was at least somewhat restrained.
But what was most interesting was watching the interview juxtaposed with news of Nelson Mandela’s death. The tensions and divisiveness that existed in South Africa are in some ways strains of the same tensions and divisiveness we see in our own country. Americans are confronted with big challenges that require the courage to find big solutions.
Mandela recognized after his release from prison that if his country was going to survive and prosper, he needed to form a coalition government. Reconciliation over past hostilities and injustices was overdue.
If we are ever going to break the gridlock in Washington, Democrats and Republicans will need a similar reconciliation. The solutions to our biggest problems require support from both parties, and we should expect nothing less from our leaders.