A year ago, with the election of Barack Obama, it seemed to many that America and its role in the world might be transformed. A powerful post-ethnic, post-Cold War coalition had been created by a man who seemed able not only to transcend cultural differences and economic barriers, but also to exert American leadership in a fractured world without sowing distrust and raising fears of dominance.
His enormous personal appeal, the exultant crowds that greeted his appearances and cheered his every word have been testament to the deep well of longing and hope felt by millions of Americans. There has been nothing like this in our recent history. It has been inspiring, but also disconcerting. It is as though we were looking for a savior to rescue us from forces seemingly beyond our control.
This is too much to ask of any President—even in such a deeply presidential country as this. It is inevitable that disappointment would set in. The problem is not that Obama has failed to provide solutions. Rather it is that he has not seriously tried to engage the American public—the vast majority of which wants him to succeed. When the President fails to provide the leadership we seek, even his most ardent supporters turn to apathy or cynicism. And at that point the vultures swoop in.
No wonder that there is disappointment and disillusion. The public has watched yet another generation of its young men and women sent to be mutilated and die in distant lands in the name of an undefined and ever-elusive “security.” And it seeks to understand why the pursuit of freedom and democracy should require the embrace of cynical kleptocrats and dictators. Must our noble goals be stained by such odious methods and companions? If so, he—like his predecessors—has not told us why.
Barack Obama is an intelligent and eloquent man. He inspires. But he does not lead. Although elected by a post-Cold War coalition, he has failed to engage it in a post-Cold War foreign policy, or even to outline what such a foreign policy should be. What he has so far offered is Bush-Rumsfeld re-warmed, without the macho posturing hiding the quiet post-9/11 panic.
On entering the White House he inherited an economy collapsing under the weight of capitalist greed and a failure of public regulation, thereby subjecting millions of Americans to the loss of their jobs, their savings and their dreams—yet at the same time securing the fortunes of those who had caused the catastrophe. He told us that this was the path to recovery. But he never adequately explained this to the public. No wonder that there has been a flood of populist rage, fed by an irresponsible, revanchist Republican Right seeking to direct that rage away from the perpetrators to the victims and inheritors.
Although Obama has proposed a health care program to offer Americans the same medical security long enjoyed by citizens of other economically advanced democracies, he has not adequately explained to Americans how it is to work and why it is essential. He has not done what Franklin Roosevelt did in proposing the then-revolutionary Social Security program—which generations of Americans now take as their birthright. He has gently offered, but he has not aggressively sold. And in the public confusion, the sharks have moved in to tear his proposals to shreds.
In far too many areas Obama has allowed party coalitions and special interest groups to sabotage his domestic agenda. Although he was elected as a transformative leader and has ritualistically invoked the mantra of “change”, in office he has instead too often offered modification, improvement and mere “hope.” What he has failed to recognize, or at least been unwilling to accept, is that he is engaged in a ferocious battle at home, and that he cannot win it by being Mister Nice Guy.
In foreign policy one would not have expected that Barack Obama would be following in the footsteps of George W. Bush, albeit avoiding the messianic, self-serving rhetoric. While the United States is bogged down in tribal wars in the Middle East, the world is moving on. NATO is an alliance in name only, one that has no real enemies and uses the United States merely as a security blanket, even as Western Europe enfolds Russia in a post-Cold War embrace increasingly dominated by the economic powerhouse of Germany.
In Asia, too, a post-American future is already evident. The inexorable rise of China confronts Japan and India with critical decisions. In this emerging Great Power game the United States, bogged down in a tribal war in Afghanistan in which “winning” is an illusionary concept, will become increasingly pushed to the sidelines. Unless Barack Obama is willing to confront his own generals (for whom he is, of course, Commander-in-Chief), he will continue to dissipate his authority along with his domestic support.
Charisma is a declining asset unless continually renewed by accomplishment. Barack Obama has gloriously fulfilled our lower expectations. But if he wants to be remembered as the FDR of this generation—the President who boldly took on what he labeled the “malefactors of privilege”—rather than as its capable but ineffectual Herbert Hoover, he will have to trade in some of his charisma for a bigger dose of chutzpah and arm-twisting.