There is a sense of amazement that President Obama is lesser personage than candidate Obama. The unparalleled campaigner is now a peculiarly passive-aggressive figure who is swiftly squandering his considerable advantages. Bill Kristol writes:
Who would have thought the missing player in the first month of the administration would be Barack Obama? He let his signature economic legislation, the stimulus, be shaped by congressional Democrats. He let internal disputes over the difficult question of how to save the banking system result in a disastrous non-announcement of a non-plan by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner last week. Before that, he let Geithner become Treasury secretary after cheating on his income taxes, and waived his own ethics rules to appoint a lobbyist as deputy secretary of defense–undercutting his promises to clean up Washington. He allowed Rahm Emanuel to politicize the Census Bureau, losing as a result his commerce secretary-designee, Judd Gregg, an ornament of his professed hope for bipartisanship.
He returned to the campaign trail for no reason, as Kristol observes, suggesting that the man who spent most of his life running rather than occupying office may be most at ease with adoring fans who do not question his premises nor challenge his utterly conventional liberal policies. He made some limited social overtures to Republicans and then lashed out with hyper-partisan rhetoric when they did not — to everyone’s surprise — embrace a stimulus bill which incorporated none of their policy suggestions.
One recalls the not-so-distant days of the transition when he could be president-elect, standing in front of all those flags with an impressive array of advisors while the outgoing president sent the markets plunging each time he stepped before the cameras. Now, the markets dive when Obama’s treasury secretary appears. And alas, Obama’s favorite punching bag has returned to Texas.
Throughout the campaign we asked: “Who is he?” Debates raged between those contending he was a far-left liberal and those contending he was a thoughtful moderate. In the transition we asked again: “Who is he?” He seemed to have a lot of center-right national security gurus but then he threw in plenty of uber-regulators. Well, he was going to settle all the disputes and prevent the clashes between “strong personalities” from becoming logjams. But we still don’t know what he wants.
By default we assume he likes the Pelosi lard-a-thon spending bill. Or is he simply resigned to it? Did he applaud upon finding that the stimulus bill included $5B to encourage states to fill up the welfare rolls, or was this just the price of doing business with the House Democrats? It is no more clear now, in fact less so, whether he has any interest in restraining the most extreme elements in the Democratic party.
During the campaign, everyone cooed about his temperament and watched in awe as he played rope-a-dope with John McCain. But come to think of it he never told us then what he thought of key, urgent matters (e.g. the invasion of Georgia, the AIG rescue) until long after everyone else had put their cards on the table. Zen-like passivity worked when he did not have responsibility for governing.
So we remain baffled about whether he has allowed himself to be run over by events and his own party, or whether this is precisely what he wants — an ultra-liberal, hyper-partisan administration. If the former, we have a serious management issue. If the latter, there are plenty of voters who were deceived.