The outpouring of support and emotion in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory last week has been at times moving, especially among African Americans. Among some others, though, it has also been a bit embarrassing. I have in mind, for example, The New Yorker’s David Remnick, who on The Charlie Rose show last week acted like a besotted adolescent. Perhaps sensing how bathetic he came across, Remnick said, “And can I point out journalistically, Charlie, I think it is–we’ll climb out of the tank soon.”
I’m not so sure. In any event, we will be turning from the historic nature of this moment to the future. And whether Obama will be another FDR, as many of his supporters believe, is, to say the least, an open question.
Such a thing is possible, of course, but it all depends on the quality of the decision he makes and how the country performs under his watch. If things go well, Obama and Democrats will be very difficult to dislodge. They own the show; if they manage it well, they will be rewarded. But if not, everything will change. In fact, the things many people now look at as Obama’s strengths will be viewed as weaknesses. His calm demeanor will be characterized as detachment; his cool intelligence will be cited as an example of his lack of passion. His ability to grasp different sides of different issues will be evidence of a man who is indecisive, better suited to be a college professor than a president. His efforts to portray himself as anti-ideological and pragmatic will be interpreted as lacking core convictions.
Such things have happened before, even to our greatest Presidents. When unemployment was 10.8 percent in December 1982, Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings were in the mid-30s and his party suffered badly in his first mid-term election, losing 27 House seats and giving Democrats a powerful majority (269 v. 166). Reagan’s sunny disposition and optimism, which is now celebrated even by liberals, were said to be evidence of a man out of touch with the problems and concerns of the country. His philosophical commitments were said to be evidence of rigid ideology. His strength of purpose were taken as a sign of a lack of pragmatism. Words now etched in granite, like referring to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” were criticized at the time as provocative, undiplomatic, the utterings of a trigger-happy cowboy. But the economy began to turn around in 1983 and took off like a rocket in 1984; as a result, Reagan massacred Walter Mondale, carrying 49 states.
When things were going poorly for the North during the Civil War–which happened for much of the Civil War–Abraham Lincoln was mocked, ridiculed, and even hated. In December 1861, Congressional Republicans were “in a tirade,” according to the Lincoln biographer Stephen Oates. A new watchdog committee–the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War– confronted Lincoln about his lack of action. Senator Ben Wade, a Republican, implored Lincoln to take charge, but he had doubts it would happen. Lincoln was a wise and excellent man, Bates wrote in his diary, “but he lacks will and purpose.” Lincoln’s entire Administration was adrift, it was said.
After the loss of Fredericksburg, Lincoln fell into a severe depression. According to Oates, Lincoln was on the receiving end of a “fusillade of criticism” from both friends and foes, who blamed him and his “weak and timorous” Cabinet for what had unfolded. “Disgust with our present government is certainly universal,” it was written at the time. “Even Lincoln himself has gone down at last. Nobody believes in him any more.” But eventually Lincoln replaced McClellan and turned to Grant, Sherman took Atlanta and began his march to the sea, and Lincoln won re-election.
I recount this history to make a simple point: the acid test for a President is always performance. And there’s no reliable way to judge in advance how an individual will perform as President. Part of it depends on whether or not the person rises to the occasion, and part of it depends on the circumstances he faces.
President-elect Obama will inherit a slew of challenges, both domestic and international. He deserves, and will be given, a honeymoon period for a time. And people won’t judge him harshly for not immediately reversing, say, the financial/credit crisis we’re in. But sooner than he might imagine, and certainly sooner than he might wish, the responsibility for how America is performing will fall to him and his Democratic colleagues in the House and the Senate. A year from now, it won’t be enough to blame the problems on others. He and other Democrats ran and won on the promise that they would turn things around, and do so quickly. Those promises can’t be reeled back. Obama in particular has set a very high bar. Indeed, the expectations for “change”–in policies, in performance, even in the way we conduct our politics–is as high as I can recall. According to Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, “Americans have exceptionally high hopes for President-elect Barack Obama. More than one fourth of Americans think he’ll be a great president. . . .”
The capacity to engineer constructive change may be less than Obama thought, and he will find the world will not be as malleable as hot wax. Things don’t have to be perfect, but there needs to be a sense that the trajectory is improving and that his proposals are working. If Barack Obama governs as President as he voted as a state senator and a U.S. Senator–which is to say, from the left–then today’s high hopes will come crashing down around him. It’s possible, of course, that Obama breaks with his past ideology as easily as he broke with Jeremiah Wright. For the sake of the country, I hope he does.
For understandable reasons, many people are being swept up in this remarkable American moment. But reality will intrude soon enough, and Barack Obama will face the same standards that every other President has faced. Incantations of “hope” and “change” can work in a campaign. They are virtually useless when it comes to governing. Barack Obama is about to enter the crucible. We’ll see how he performs.