Difference Makers

Clinton, Bloomberg and Snowden made differences while Obama seems uninterested.

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What a difference a day makes, they say. "They" are so right, Jake. And they say an individual can make a difference – and "they" are right again. I can think of three men who have made a big difference and another – well, not so much. 

What a difference a mayor can make. Just look at the New York cityscape's change since one Mayor Michael Bloomberg showed up to take charge. Housing has boomed – or bloomed – and so has development, building and rezoning in general. An activist mayor isn't going to get everything right – and Bloomberg will leave office with a shadow of aggressive police searches over his head. But he was in there pitching every day and New Yorkers could feel and see his presence in everyday life. Bike-sharing in Manhattan? You bet. In a dozen years of rethinking the questions and answers, Bloomberg has redrawn the physical and mental boundaries on the map of New York. He fought to have less asphalt and fewer cars on that map, according to The New York Times, for a greener city. So he had a little chutzpah – so what? People actually like to see public officials who are bold and restless, who chafe about getting things done. Bloomberg is a dreamer and a doer – that's a tough combination to crack. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

What a difference a president makes. There used to be a pop political theory that said it didn't matter who was president, because of all the institutional forces at play or work. The president was just one man arrayed against already-determined decisions and outcomes. He couldn't hope to control Congress or much at all. Then Bill Clinton came along and clearly, that theory was just plain wrong. Gregarious Clinton acted more like the governor of the United States, in that he knew the backwoods, the districts, the issues and people's names. He took governing personally, wherever he happened to be. He quickly changed the tax code to make it more progressive with a 51-50 tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Clinton got out in front of things, and he talked like so: frankly, my dear, I do give a damn. And I personally don't give a damn if he's a lovable rascal. As we neared the end of his eight years, impeachment or not, most Americans felt peace and prosperity brighten their own lives.  Peace and prosperity, another tough combination, was ours in the 1990s,  don't let it be forgot. 

What a difference a young man makes. Edward Snowden is a courageous young man who single-handedly decided to inform the American citizenry that we are being spied upon by our own government.  For that, if he's lucky, he’ll live a life in exile. Few will thank him as he lives on the lam, charged with high crimes. President Obama's administration is making the Snowden situation escalate foreign policy tensions with Russia, where he was granted asylum. That is really not necessary. A healthy democracy needs its fair share of subversives.  

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker who helped Snowden, said in an interview with The Times magazine,  "It's an incredible emotional experience to be contacted by a complete stranger saying he was going to risk his life to expose things the public should know." The polished Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, stood trial, walked out a free man and a folk hero to this day. He was a member of the club, the establishment, while the unknown Snowden has no such credentials for his act of conscience.  He would not be treated to the same fine fate as Ellsberg – who praised the actions the brave young man took. What a wrench his truth-telling has been so far. 

What a difference a president can make – or not. Here we go, and it breaks my heart to say, "That dog won't hunt." But the president on the job now doesn't seem so fond of the job anymore. In seven months since President Obama started his second term, nothing he's done has made a difference. Sadly, no major bills passed. Sequestration is starting to smell like rotten eggs. And while Cairo burned, Obama barely blinked on Martha's Vineyard. The president is in listless retreat from his House Republican foes, a troublesome majority. And the trouble for too-cool-for-school Obama is that nobody in Congress fears his wrath. Since he's not running for re-election, it’s clear he's more likely to embrace his solitude, golf and basketball, to hang out with his favorite person. 

All I ask is, with the country still groaning, that Obama skips giving us another pretty speech. Sorry, but that's pretty thin gruel.   

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