Commentary Magazine


The Itty-Bitty Presidency

Obama started his presidency as an international political rock star. Europeans swooned. They gave him a Nobel Peace Prize just for showing up. The campaign had a messianic quality, and the presidency at least offered a respite from the Bush-bashing and the Clinton-hating. Even if the expectations were overblown and unrealistic, the vision was high-minded.

But unlike the vision, the actual president has turned out to be exceptionally small-minded. His enemies list has grown long — Fox News, the Chamber of Commerce, the “professional left,” talk show hosts, the lazy liberal base, the 24/7 media cycle, Wall Street, the House minority leader, and on it goes. He persists in reducing the prestige of his office and decimating the image of himself as a unifier. As Ed Gillespie has pointed out: “This kind of rhetoric and behavior only reinforces the idea that [Obama] is not up for the office. … It’s just the latest in a long litany of demons that they’ve tried to attack, going all the way back to Rush Limbaugh, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell … it’s what they do.”

It’s been a turn-off for independents, who find this sort of behavior unseemly, and it hasn’t — if this was the intention — managed to keep the base pumped up. Instead, Obama has elevated his opponents and further eroded his credibility. It’s a sign of tone-deafness both in the White House and in a president who temperamentally cannot tolerate dissent or criticism. He must vilify opponents, not simply rebut their arguments.

We will find out if this is a flawed strategy born of Chicago bully-boys or a reflection of the president’s core personality. The former is reversible, the latter probably isn’t. The liberal punditocracy has speculated that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are no match for Obama and that Congress will overreach by appearing too confrontational. There is always that possibility. But those theories assume that the president has a winning persona and is adept at staying above the fray. His first two years have shown just the opposite.

The 2012 GOP primary voters will be looking for many qualities in a nominee — conservative values, executive competence, etc. But they would do well to look for a happy warrior; the contrast between such a figure and Obama may be quite compelling.