Commentary Magazine


The Great and Mighty Oz

David Brooks has an insightful column today at the New York Times. He makes a point that was floating out there for a while but has metastasized recently: namely that Barack Obama is a surprisingly weak president. That is not to say Obama isn’t ambitious; in fact, his ambition — and, I would argue, his overreach — is among his more pronounced qualities. But where Obama is weak is in his unwillingness to lead Congress; instead he is being led by it — by its most liberal committeemen in particular.

On virtually every important issue — from the stimulus package, to cap-and-trade, to health care, to taxes, and more — Obama is ceding the agenda to the barons on Capitol Hill. And they will lead him over a cliff.

Why this is taking place is hard to know. It may be that Obama and Company are over-learning the lessons of the Clinton and Carter years, when relations with Democrats on the Hill were strained. It may be that Obama doesn’t like to immerse himself in the nitty-gritty of policy and is more comfortable deferring to those who do. It may be that the liberals on the Hill actually reflect what Obama himself — whose record as a legislator was, after all, markedly liberal — favors. It may be that Obama’s lack of experience is now showing through. Or it might be a combination of all four.

Regardless of the cause, the result will be damaging, and maybe even debilitating, to the Obama administration. All the campaign’s promises — about practicing a new brand of politics, finding middle ground, embodying hope and change — seem so old, so dated, and so cynical. Obama is turning out to be Salesman-in-Chief. But what he’s trying to peddle — an unusually liberal agenda and legislation that ranges from ineffective to downright harmful and reflects the desires of leading Congressional Democrats rather than the needs of the country — ain’t selling.

The great and mighty Oz isn’t quite what his admirers said he was. The curtain is being pulled back, one week at a time, one policy at a time, one revelation at a time. It turns out that Barack Obama’s sales pitch on behalf of Nancy Pelosi’s policy agenda isn’t really all that attractive after all.