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.”

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