Sometime around mid-December, give or take a week, President Obama responded to a reporter’s question by saying he’d give himself a B-plus for his first year in office. He then quickly added that he’d raise the grade to an A-minus if Congress passed the health care reform bill and he signed it into law.
Now that the first year is behind him, it’s clear that he didn’t get his A-minus. In fact, that B-plus might be higher than he deserves based on the way his first year ended.
Lest anyone forgot, Obama’s big health care initiative got stalled in back room negotiations between the divergent members of his own party before it was completely scuttled by the election of a 41st Republican Senator. That single upset in Massachusetts was loaded with shock value, as the previously unknown Scott Brown defeated the state’s sitting Attorney General in the race to replace Ted Kennedy. The election occurred on January 19, and was a fitting end to the first year of the Obama presidency.
It is a presidency that has lost far more than its luster. It may also have lost its direction, as the “change” that was the single-word mantra of the campaign slowly got buried in a flurry of events, only some of which the administration could claim to have had no control over.
Consider that in the span of one single year, Mr. Obama has managed to lose the excitement he generated from both the liberal wing of his own party and from the independents who flocked to him in droves (with both their votes and their dollars) during the campaign. That’s no small task, especially considering that he also managed to engender the near hatred of the other side of the political spectrum, as epitomized by the tea bagger movement.
And so, in reflecting on the first year of what was supposed to be a transformative presidency, it is only fair, right and proper to posit the simple question – what happened?
The answer is not nearly as simple as the question, but it has to start with the man himself. Turns out, he’s a much better campaigner than he is a leader. As a campaigner, Obama caught a mood and ran with it. The country was sick of everything that George W. Bush had represented for eight years, and Obama turned that feeling into a reformist battle cry.
Unfortunately, campaign slogans, bereft as they often are (and largely were in this case) of substance, don’t bear much resemblance to the nitty-gritty work of governing a nation. And Mr. Obama, as had been predicted by many, lacked the experience to be president.
Of course, the same can probably be said of every newly-elected president. Even succeeding vice-presidents lack the real experience of being the most powerful person in the world. It’s a job that has no pre-election training program.
But the other conclusion that emerges from Obama’s first year as president may be a more serious problem. For while new presidents can, and usually do, figure out the requirements of the job, some just don’t have the skill set. Mr. Obama may well be stuck with that tragic deficiency.
It isn’t that the man lacks the smarts. He’s probably smarter than almost anyone on the political scene today. And it isn’t that he lacks the energy or interest in the job. He’s totally committed and has plenty of youthful stamina for the long hours and grueling travel schedule. And it certainly isn’t that he lacks an understanding of the critical importance of the work. He knows that the times are perilous for his country and that the future for the entire world may rest on his ability to find solutions to things like environmental degradation, radical Islamic terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and a host of other seething problems that could become Armageddon-like crises in the blink of an eye.
And it isn’t, despite what his detractors are wont to claim, that he is a radical ideologue, desperately seeking to bring European socialism to his country. That claim, while it stirs the anti-government legions who populate the tea-bagger rallies, flies in the face of his Clintonesque approach to policy decisions. He’s a centrist, a veritable clone of the last Democrat to reside in the White House.
His centrism is no more evident than in the health care bill that he allowed to emerge from the Congressional wrangling that took fully a year (now with nothing to show for it). The bill that the Senate passed is loaded with pro-insurance industry goodies and lacks anything that could even remotely resemble a socialized-medicine program.
Were Obama the ideologue his critics claim, that bill would be a single-payer plan, or at least would contain a strong public option. Instead, the bill contains a mandate that will only increase the business flowing to health insurance companies, as the many uninsured in America are forced to buy insurance from the same private insurance companies that were supposedly the focus of the reforms in the first place.
But let’s not stop there. Look at the team Obama has surrounded himself with. On the foreign policy front he has Hillary Clinton at State and Robert Gates holding over from the Bush administration at Defense. On economic policy, he has Lawrence Summers, Clinton’s former Secretary of the Treasury and Tim Geithner, a protégé of Robert Rubin (another former Clinton Treasury secretary) and a Goldman Sachs alum. His chief of staff is Rahm Emanuel, another Clinton aide.
So if he isn’t an ideologue and he doesn’t lack the smarts, or the energy or the interest, what does he lack?
What Obama lacks, or at least has lacked to this point in his presidency, is the ability to lead. He has not led his party well or effectively, and he has not led his nation decisively or coherently. He has been a rudder, seeking to guide ever so gently, while trying, in understated tones, to get everyone to get along.
Rudders work well on ships at sea; they tend to be less effective in commanding ships of state.