No president in my lifetime has fallen from heaven to earth as rapidly as President Obama. Others have lost popularity and lost control of Congress, but none fell from such a height. Who can forget the rapturous cries of joy when he was elected in 2008? Who can forget all those predictions of a ‘transformational presidency,’ hailing the one term Senator from Illinois as a new Lincoln, a new FDR, and (my personal favorite) the ‘Democratic Reagan’?
Some of this was a natural pride that virtually the entire country felt at the election of our first African-American President. Slaves helped build the Capitol building; to see a black man take the oath of office on those steps was a great historic moment — a visible sign of healing and grace. America’s first black President means something regardless of politics and party to everyone in this country and even to everyone in the world. There was bound to be a contrast between the transcendence that the President represents and the cruel reality of ordinary politics into which he immediately and necessarily plunged.
But some of the enthusiasm was less solidly based. Who can forget the lavish praise of the new President’s mesmerizing rhetoric? Serious political writers seriously compared the President’s campaign addresses to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural. The Great Persuader was going to carry the country into a new age of progressive politics, creating a new consensus behind the power of a reinvigorated state. The earth would start to cool, the waters to recede, the rainbows would appear in the sky.
All pundits, including yours truly, get it wrong sometimes, and normally there would be little point in dwelling on past blunders. But it this case, it is worth exhuming these vaporous and embarrassing stupidities for a few moments. Many of our nation’s intellectual leaders wonder why the rest of the country isn’t more respectful of their claims to be guided by and speak for the cool voice of celestial reason. That so many of them gushed over Barack Obama with all of the profundity of reflection and intellectual distance of tweeners at a Justin Bieber concert should help them understand why their claims of superior wisdom are sometimes met with caustic cynicism.
A significant chunk of the American liberal intelligentsia completely lost its head over Barack Obama. They mistook hopes and fantasies for reality. Worse, the disease spread to at least some members of the White House team. An administration elected with a mandate to stabilize the country misread the political situation and came to the belief that the country wanted the kinds of serious and deep changes that liberals have wanted for decades. It was 1933, and President Obama was the new FDR.
They did not perceive just how wrong they were; nor did they understand how the error undermined the logical case they wanted to make in favor of a bigger role for government guided by smart, well-credentialed liberal wonks. Give us more power because we understand the world better than you do, was the message. We are so smart, so well-credentialed, so careful to read all the best papers by all the certified experts that the recommendations we make and the regulations we write, however outlandish and burdensome they look to all you non-experts out there, are certain to work. Trust us because we are always right, and only fools and charlatans would be so stupid as to disagree.
They were fundamentally misreading the mood of the country, the political situation, and the ability of the new president even as they claimed that their superior and universal wisdom gave them the right and the duty to plan the future of vast swatches of the American economy. They were swept away by giddy euphoria even as they proclaimed the virtue of cool reason. Voters could see this; increasingly, they tuned the administration out.
Another factor in the President’s political trouble comes from a failure of rhetoric and communication. Musing over the electoral setback, President Obama has spoken of a ‘failure of communication.’ It’s a strange failure for a President so enthusiastically hailed by the mainstream media as the greatest orator of the era. Over time, however, a weakness in President Obama’s speaking ability has gradually become clear. The President, for all his virtues, lacks the essential gift of a great orator: the power to persuade. If you already agree with Barack Obama, you will be inspired and uplifted by his ability to express your common convictions in dignified and patriotic terms. If you don’t agree with him, you are unlikely to be convinced.
Great speakers like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had the power to concentrate your awareness on the core of the argument, to force those who disagreed to re-examine their positions, and to sway the great moderate middle to their side by logical arguments eloquently expressed. This President is more like Woodrow Wilson: a great expounder rather than a great persuader. When he shares the national mood he can express it better than just about anyone — but he cannot persuade doubters to follow his lead. In that sense his rhetoric is an ornament not a weapon. It is a feather in the cap, not a sword in the hand.
The President’s problems are not all his fault. The American economy is passing through a painful transition; there is no simple path to rising wages, rising house prices and declining budget deficits from where we now stand. The core strategies that have guided both political parties and the mainstream establishment since the fall of the Soviet Union are not working very well. Globalization seems to be making too many Americans less well off and the international environment is becoming more contentious and unstable, not less. Neither neo-conservatism, liberal internationalism, neo-liberalism nor the Third Way worked as advertised. The ideas and the policies of American intellectuals left and right seem largely inadequate and even irrelevant to both our foreign and domestic problems. President Obama is not the cause of this systemic crisis in the American Project, but the public judges him by how well he copes with it.
Adding to the President’s problems are the frankly irrational underpinnings of American political culture. The President of the United States is not actually an all powerful wizard who can make the economy rise by saying the right spells. The President is no more able to control the tides than King Canute. Politically, American voters haven’t come far from the ancient Greek world Marie Renault described in The King Must Die: when the crops don’t grow it obviously means we have the wrong king; we must kill the incumbent and sprinkle his blood on the cornfields. Once that is done the gods will be appeased and the crops will grow once again. Repeat as needed.
But the President cannot lay all his troubles on irrational voter expectations and an inscrutable fate. He is to some degree the victim of bad strategic choices he himself made. He selected a stimulus program large enough to frighten the country, but not large enough to assure recovery. He left the design of that program almost entirely in the hands of members of congress who were more interested in carving pork than in crafting a bill that would deliver the greatest possible stimulus in the shortest possible time. Arguably, by not proposing a two year holiday on payroll taxes (for Social Security and Medicare) while initiating a serious national conversation about the future of entitlements, he missed the greatest opportunity in a generation to deal with the country’s single greatest long-term problem — while building enduring popularity for himself and turbo-charging the economy.
Without assuaging voters’ concerns about the economy he embarked on a health care reform that has only become more unpopular as people have thought more about it. Overseas, he unwisely believed the self-described ‘realists’ who persistently fail to grasp the most basic dynamics of the US-Israel relationship and pinned his credibility on his ability to extract more concessions from Israel than he could get the Israelis to make. Twice Bibi Netanyahu has made him look like a rube; Charlie Brown runs toward the football, and Lucy snatches it away. The President wrapped himself in transcendent robes of moral urgency and higher righteousness to announce his grand plans to close Guantanamo; the subject has slowly faded away.
Nobody made him do any of these things; these are the choices the President made, and now he, and we, must live with the consequences.
I continue to wish that the immensely talented and driven figure now in the White House had finished his term in the Senate, run for governor of Illinois and served at least one term there before coming to Washington. The painful lessons he has been learning on the national and international stage could have been mastered in a more forgiving environment and his presidency would have had much greater chances for the kind of historic success he so deeply craves.
But wishes are vain; I still wish that John McCain had done better in the South Carolina primary back in 1999.
Still, however we got here, and whomever should be blamed, President Obama’s current term is not yet half over. Senator McConnell can talk about the importance of ensuring that President Obama serves only one term; I am still interested in ensuring that the next two years unfold in the best possible way for the United States. Particularly overseas, I do not want this President to fail. I do not want him humiliated, frustrated, or in any way diminished–and neither should any American. The world is a hard and a dangerous place; there are many people out there who would like to do much worse things to this country than stick it with an unpopular health plan. Somehow, despite what is going to be an inevitably contentious contest between the two parties, this country still needs to stand behind our President when he faces the world.
As for President Obama, I would not count him out. He may not be the liberal superman his delusional supporters thought they saw in January 2009; neither is he chopped liver. He has had some painful and public lessons and beyond a doubt he is smarter, tougher, and more experienced now than he was two years ago. Like other presidents who have faced the loss of part of the Congress, he is likely to turn more attention now to the field where the Constitution gives a president the most power and freedom: foreign policy.
We must all hope he succeeds.