First Lady Michelle Obama spoke for most Democrats when she told Oprah Winfrey that the country now knows “what not having hope feels like.” The comment, in an interview to be broadcast today, was an answer to a question about whether her husband fulfilled his 2008 campaign pledge to bring the country hope. Mrs. Obama’s reply ignored the debate about whether President Obama’s policies met the expectations of voters that their lives would be improved. Instead, she chose to draw a contrast between the good feelings the 2008 election engendered with the doom and gloom on the left about what a Trump presidency may bring.
Whatever one might say about his policies, Obama’s calm, too-cool-for-school demeanor,is a formidable political asset. Though his charms were often lost on dissenting conservatives, most Americans like the 44th president. Obama has a knack for appearing in control, no matter the circumstances. But while temperament is important, it is not everything.
A reasonable affect is no substitute for effective policies. Calm cannot resolve the contradictions in Obamacare that make it an economic disaster. Nor has it produced the kind of robust economy that would have ensured his designated successor’s victory. A steady hand is essential to strong leadership, but it didn’t help the president hold the line in negotiations with Iran as he made concession after concession that wound up producing a deal that ensured that Tehran will eventually get a bomb rather than, as he promised in 2012, an end to their nuclear ambitions.
Indeed, a refusal to be shaken by events may have actually hurt Obama’s presidency in some respect. A less self-assured man might have looked at the results of some of his decisions and been willing to admit error. Instances such as the withdrawal from Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS and the humiliating retreat from the threat to punish Syria for using chemical weapons might have generated more soul searching in someone who was not quite so convinced that history would always prove him right. The same is true for his unwillingness to compromise with congressional Republicans, which ensured every issue would be a partisan issue. If Obama never learned from his mistakes, it was because his personality was such that he never was able to admit any.
The hope that Obama engendered was real but, stripped of the sheen of his personality and historic status, the results haven’t amounted to much. His chief legacy achievements, Obamacare at home and the Iran deal abroad, are unlikely to stand the test of time or survive the scrutiny of historians.
Donald Trump brings different skills and liabilities to the Oval Office. His hair-trigger temper is cause for concern. But his followers are as hopeful about his ability to overturn the Washington apple cart as Obama’s were about his boasts to turn back the rise of the oceans. Both will be judged primarily by what they achieved in office rather than the atmospherics they generate in their public statements. As Obama proved, calm is no guarantee of success.