In the lead column in last Sunday’s New York Times “Review” section, Professor Drew Westen of Emory University asked, “What Happened to Obama?” But the lengthy essay did far more than raise a question about the current president. It indicted Obama’s leadership qualities and his record as president.
And, while it didn’t call for a challenge from the left to his re-election, that possibility is what many liberals may soon be contemplating, if they aren’t already. With 30 months of his presidency now in the books, it is clear that this man is not the champion of liberal causes many thought (or at least hoped) he would be. But beyond concerns about his ideological views, he represents the worst of two unacceptable qualities in the leader the country needs at this time in its history: He is ineffective and indecisive.
Ineffectively indecisive may sound harsh, but it isn’t inaccurate. Obama has been conciliatory when he needed to be firm and irresolute when he needed to be committed. In his speeches and press conferences, he has sounded far more like a mediator than a leader, and in his actions, he has been far more willing to meet demands than to make them.
The result on issue after issue has been acquiescence to the growing militancy of the far right (as represented by the Tea Party, which, for all intents and purposes, is the current Republican Party). And his acquiescence to that militancy has now adversely affected the nation’s creditworthiness, stalled the struggling economic recovery, and created a strong likelihood of a “double-dip” recession.
Obama’s supporters make excuses that are increasingly unconvincing. The claim that the Tea Party makes Obama’s job much tougher is only true to the extent that any weak leader would have a tough time with a militant opposition. But let’s remember how the Tea Party movement gained traction in the first place. It was in response to Obama’s early legislative initiatives, in particular, his stimulus bill, his efforts to reform the nation’s health care system, and his attempt to regulate the financial industry.
In each instance, Obama’s measures were either ill-defined (health care and the initial financial regulatory plan) or inadequate for the problem at hand (the stimulus bill and the ultimate financial regulatory bill). And in each instance, Obama himself did precious little to lead the fight for what he wanted.
Instead, he allowed Congress to come up with the bills, acting as if he were just a sideline observer instead of the single person in our system who can identify the needs of the country with a voice of unimpeachable authority. George W. Bush, of all people, proved this point time and again as he pushed vigorously for his tax cuts, his wars and his assaults on individual liberty.
Bush got a half million fewer popular votes than his opponent in 2000 (only winning the election when the Supreme Court awarded him Florida’s Electoral College votes), but on taking office he immediately acted as if he secured a mandate in pushing a highly partisan agenda. Obama did win a landslide victory in both the popular vote and the Electoral College, but he did nothing more than lay out a wish list of important programs he wanted to pursue, never claiming a mandate or, more importantly, acting as if he had one.
But why else was he elected so handily after a campaign that stressed the need for “change”? If you run for the office of president as a “change candidate,” the assumption is that you are going to push for real change when you get elected. But on taking office Obama only indicated vaguely and generally what the country needed: health care reform, energy independence, better education (the three pillars of his first Congressional address). The specifics were never forthcoming, and the second and third pillars still haven’t been addressed.
The attacks from the right began immediately, and while some of it (the “birther” claims, in particular) smacked of a racist backlash, most of it was just politics, aggressive politics, to be sure, but just politics nonetheless.
In response, Obama showed that when it comes to political fights, he isn’t a fighter. Instead of fighting back, he tried to placate and conciliate, neither approach especially effective when the other side just wants to attack and diminish you. And, over time, the Republicans have succeeded in doing just that.
But Obama’s real failing has been in the area that was thought to be one of his strengths, to wit: he has not communicated effectively. He hasn’t used his “bully pulpit” to educate or to explain the reasons for his actions and for the proposals and programs he sought to implement. Thus, the health care bill was a year in the making and Obama still has not articulated the reason it is so important to a point of meaningful understanding.
Ironically, in dealing with the public, Obama has been far too political. His speeches, instead of educating, seek to simplify the calculus of a decision to second-grade arithmetic. He acts as if the complexities of policy judgments are beyond the intellectual grasp of the populace, thereby playing right into the hands of the opposition, which is much better at simplifying policy issues than he will ever be.
Ultimately, a president must be judged by what has happened on his watch relative to what he said would happen in his campaign. And this president has not brought about meaningful “change,” either in the policy judgments he has made or in the way he has run his presidency. Moreover, he has not solved the main problem he confronted when he took office, which was “the economy, stupid.”
Instead, he has attempted half solutions either because he thought they’d be enough (the stimulus bill) or because he didn’t think he could get anything more (the debt ceiling “compromise”). In each instance, he has been too timid, too conciliatory, too indecisive, and too “centrist.”
Obama’s liberal “base” may stick with him, but at this point, an alternative candidate from the left would be attractive, even if only to register a fully-merited protest.