Feature

Obama: What happened to the hope and change?

Taking stock of President Obama's leadership and political skills

What happened to Barack Obama? asked Drew Westen in The New York Times. In the heady days after the 2008 election, American progressives were sure they’d voted in a “charismatic reformer” who would not only “fix the mess that Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country,” but serve as a passionate, eloquent champion for the embattled middle class and the forgotten poor. But as his presidency staggers along, the dynamic bearer of “hope’’ and “change’’ turns out to have a “deep-seated aversion to conflict.” In every key battle of his presidency—health-care reform, the stimulus, regulating Wall Street, ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and, now, the debt-ceiling standoff—Obama has bargained away his principles to Republicans or political expediency. One minute Obama demands comprehensive immigration reform, the next he deports 800,000 immigrants over two years. One minute he demands that the wealthy share the pain of cutting deficits, then agrees to a deal in which grandmothers suffer but hedge-fund managers don’t. “Like most Americans, I have no idea what Barack Obama believes on virtually any issue.” One wonders: Does he believe in anything at all?

I, too, sometimes find Obama disappointing, said Jonathan Chait in TheNewRepublic.com, but Westen’s criticism is based on “liberal fantasizing.” Clearly, he was expecting Obama to be like the noble liberal president of The West Wing TV show, using soaring rhetoric to “sweep along the public with the force of his conviction.” Obama, however, took office “at the cusp of a worldwide financial crisis” that has constrained and damaged his presidency, and even with the majorities he enjoyed in Congress, he faced intransigent Republican opposition on every one of his initiatives. Could Obama have been a more skillful politician in these battles? Perhaps. But it’s nonsensical to say he hasn’t tried to push his policies through, or make his case to the American people. He has—repeatedly. But this isn’t The West Wing, and throughout recent history, “Americans pay hardly any attention to what presidents say, and what little they take in, they forget almost immediately.”

Obama’s problem is simple, said Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. He “isn’t really very good at politics.” He was masterful in evoking hope and dreams during the 2008 campaign, but actually being president requires a different set of skills—persuasion and dealmaking, winning the public’s support for legislation—and in these areas Obama is sorely lacking. That’s a nicer way of saying that “the president isn’t very bright,” said Bret Stephens, also in the Journal. Yes, I know, I know. He speaks in complete sentences, and once edited the Harvard Law Review. But a bright person sees the world clearly and strategically, and learns from his mistakes. Obama shows no aptitude for governing, which is why he’s alienated the most blindly loyal supporters in U.S. history. To quote Forrest Gump, “stupid is as stupid does.”

For a supposed wimp and moron, said Andrew Sullivan in TheDailyBeast.com, Obama has a rather impressive record of accomplishment. In only two short years, he’s headed off a full economic meltdown with the stimulus; saved the U.S. banking and automobile industries at minimal cost to the taxpayer; imposed tough new regulations on the financial sector; ended the Iraq war; gotten rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; killed Osama bin Laden; and, oh yes, overhauled the profoundly dysfunctional U.S. health-care system. And he did all this while “fighting both a global depression and a brutal, extremist right-wing opposition.” The idea that Obama could have accomplished more as a “fiery partisan warrior” is ludicrous, said Kevin Drum in MotherJones.com. The only effect of such a posture would have been to “unite the Republican Party even more unanimously against him,” and probably to alienate much of the public, too.

Obama’s problem isn’t an absence of anger, said Richard Cohen in The Washington Post. It’s his lack of visible warmth and empathy—a sense that he truly understands the lives of Americans outside the White House gates. He succeeded in life, and in politics, because he’s such a cool character, so aloof and eminently reasonable, so self-assured in his biracial skin. But while polls show that Americans generally like him (if they don’t despise him), Obama doesn’t connect with people’s problems the way Franklin Roosevelt once did, or Bill Clinton. That’s the real danger for Obama as 2012 looms. “This president got elected because he was cool. He could be defeated because he is cold.”

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