Commentary Magazine


It Wasn’t Supposed to Be This Hard

When Barack Obama assumed office, his supporters viewed him as a man of preternatural talents: highly intelligent and unusually reasonable, disciplined and competent, open to different points of view, committed to bipartisanship and to achieving common ground, an agent of reform and comity, cool and graceful, trans-ideological and groundbreaking. Governing is never easy, especially when facing an economic crisis — but Obama was extraordinary, we were told, a once-in-a-lifetime figure, wise beyond his years, compared to Lincoln and to God, destined for greatness, The One. Or so the story went.

Suddenly, six months into his presidency, Obama is beginning to look overmatched by events, on almost every front. More than 2.5 million Americans have lost their jobs since Obama took office. Unemployment is significantly worse than Obama told us it would be, and it’s going to get worse still. The deficit and debt are bursting like exploding stars, with no end in sight. The stimulus package was a three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollar bust. The cap-and-trade legislation, ill-conceived and unpopular, will probably never become law — though House Democrats who voted for it may well pay a high political price for having done so. And Obama’s bailout and management of the auto industry looks increasingly unwise.

The signature initiative of his first year, his health-care plan, gets more and more unpopular with every passing day, as even Democrats are voicing concerns and beginning to rebel. The central claims made by Obama about his plan, from containing costs to people not being forced to give up their current coverage, are being shredded.

In international affairs, Obama has changed the mood music but achieved very little else. He seems eager to pressure friends and look the other way when it comes to our enemies. He still has no plan to close Guantanamo Bay. His vaunted charm hasn’t convinced other nations to house GITMO detainees. His worldwide apology tour for America has gotten almost nothing in return — from our European allies committing any more troops to Afghanistan, to India or China not limiting their carbon emissions, to North Korea or Iran giving ground either on matters of nuclear weapons or internal repression.

Obama himself looks like a surprisingly weak leader, deferring to the most liberal members of Congress to write and guide his most important pieces of legislation. The president routinely uses straw men to advance his agenda and makes claims that are very nearly the opposite of the truth. He has the habit of trying to ram through enormously complicated pieces of legislation, a sign he fears scrutiny and rigorous intellectual debate. His approach seems to be that it’s better for members of Congress to pass legislation neither they nor Obama have ever read or begun to fully understand.

Obama and his administration have essentially given up on pursuing bipartisanship — once a cornerstone of his campaign. His effort to portray himself as America’s philosopher-king is growing tiresome. The most transparent administration in history isn’t turning out to be that transparent after all. Lobbyists are working in posts from which they were supposed to be barred. And according to the latest Gallup Poll, Obama’s public support now places him 10th out of 12 post–World War II presidents. While we are not seeing a collapse in personal support for Obama, we are seeing a significant drop in the public’s confidence in Obama on the issues. And the hemorrhage of support for Obama among independents over the last two months has been nothing short of startling. All in only six months.

There are, I think, several conclusions to draw from this. The first is a cautionary note. Every presidency has ebbs and flows; leaders who are low at one moment can rise the next. In addition, things never go as easily in real life as they go in strategy memoranda and PowerPoint presentations. Often the world intrudes in ways you did not expect and do not welcome. A presidency is determined in large measure by how it adjusts to the unexpected and the inconvenient, to the potholes it didn’t see, to the problems it didn’t anticipate.

Still, Obama and his supporters are the ones who created a cult of personality around him. They are the ones who set the expectations and fed the myth. Now a picture is emerging of a young president with obvious talents but also clear limitations, arrogant and ambitious but not necessarily wise — and with seemingly no sense of self-limitation. So far, Obama has not only failed to tackle the problems he was handed; he has made things worse in many respects.

He is also a completely conventional liberal, intellectually predictable and uninteresting, unable to suspend the laws of economics or make false things true. What the imprint of the Obama administration will be is impossible to know at this juncture. But we do know Barack Obama is flawed, perhaps seriously so, and he is mortal. For a time, that is something his courtiers in the press and elsewhere seemed unable to accept. Perhaps now they do.

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