We have a president who has had many significant accomplishments during his first year in office, with the economy now in much better condition than we could have dreamed of in January 2009, but there is a feeling held by many that Obama is failing. Frank Rich’s column discusses a “leadership shortfall” on the part of the Obama administration and attempts to determine where the problems are:
Those who are unsympathetic or outright hostile to Obama frame his failures as an attempt to impose “socialism” on a conservative nation. The truth is that the Fox News right would believe this about any Democratic president no matter who he was and what his policies were. Obama, who has expanded the war in Afghanistan and proved reluctant to reverse extra-constitutional Bush-Cheney jurisprudence, is a radical mainly to those who believe a conservative Republican senator like Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas is a closet commie.
The more serious debate about Obama is being conducted by neutral or sympathetic observers. There are many hypotheses. In Newsweek, Jon Meacham has writtenabout an “inspiration gap.” He sees the professorial president as “sometimes seeming to be running the Brookings Institution, not the country.” In The New Yorker, Ken Auletta has raised the perilsof Obama’s overexposure in our fractionalized media. (As if to prove the point, the president was scheduled to appear on Fox’s “America’s Most Wanted” to celebrate its 1,000th episode this weekend.) In the Beltway, the hottest conversations center on the competence of Obama’s team. Washington Post columnists are now duelingover whether Rahm Emanuel is an underutilized genius whose political savvy the president has foolishly ignored — or a bull in the capital china shop who should be replaced before he brings Obama down.
But the buck stops with the president, not his chief of staff. And if there’s one note that runs through many of the theories as to why Obama has disappointed in Year One, it cuts to the heart of what had been his major strength: his ability to communicate a compelling narrative. In the campaign, that narrative, of change and hope, was powerful — both about his own youth, biography and talent, and about a country that had gone wildly off track during the failed presidency of his predecessor. In governing, Obama has yet to find a theme that is remotely as arresting to the majority of Americans who still like him and are desperate for him to succeed.
The problem is not necessarily that Obama is trying to do too much, but that there is no consistent, clear message to unite all that he is trying to do. He has variously argued that health care reform is a moral imperative to protect the uninsured, a long-term fiscal fix for the American economy and an attempt to curb insurers’ abuses. It may be all of these, but between the multitude of motives and the blurriness (until now) of Obama’s own specific must-have provisions, the bill became a mash-up that baffled or defeated those Americans on his side and was easily caricatured as a big-government catastrophe by his adversaries.
Obama prides himself on not being ideological or partisan — of following, as he put it in his first prime-time presidential press conference, a “pragmatic agenda.” But pragmatism is about process, not principle. Pragmatism is hardly a rallying cry for a nation in this much distress, and it’s not a credible or attainable goal in a Washington as dysfunctional as the one Americans watch in real time on cable. Yes, the Bush administration was incompetent, but we need more than a brilliant mediator, manager or technocrat to move us beyond the wreckage it left behind. To galvanize the nation, Obama needs to articulate a substantive belief system that’s built from his bedrock convictions. His presidency cannot be about the cool equanimity and intellectual command of his management style.
That he hasn’t done so can be attributed to his ingrained distrust of appearing partisan or, worse, a knee-jerk “liberal.” That is admirable in intellectual theory, but without a powerful vision to knit together his vision of America’s future, he comes off as a doctrinaire Democrat anyway. His domestic policies, whether on climate change or health care or regulatory reform, are reduced to items on a standard liberal wish list. If F.D.R. or Reagan could distill, coin and convey a credo “nonideological” enough to serve as an umbrella for all their goals and to attract lasting majority coalitions of disparate American constituencies, so can this gifted president.
Rich is correct that one problem is a failure to adequately utilize Obama’s strengths as a communicator. This may partially be due to a learning curve in taking over a position as difficult as the presidency, but we are still seeing a dramatic difference between the Obama campaign and the Obama administration.
This is partially because, despite all the false claims during the campaign that Obama is all talk, he has spent his first year primarily concerned with the difficult nuts and bolts of actually governing. This has resulted in many positive results but has also resulted in Obama not receiving as much credit as he deserves for his accomplishments. On the other hand, I bet that if Obama had spent more time giving speeches he would have been attacked for being all talk.
It is also easier to attack without regard for the facts, as is common the right, as opposed to presenting a fact-based defense of policy. For example, the right attacked the stimulus plan from the start despite the lack of any evidence either way. Personally I declared myself an agnostic on the issue, waiting to see the outcome. After one year we did receive the evidence that the stimulus was a success at preventing a possible depression and increasing private sector jobs. Unfortunately by this time many were already influenced by the false claims of the right. The right wing noise machine has also been successful in convincing many that Obama is to blame for the deficits created by Republicans.
The false claims coming from the right wing noise machine are responsible for many of Barack Obama’s public relations problems. As Rich pointed out, the right would portray any Democrat as a Socialist regardless of how absurd this argument is. However this should not come as a surprise. Obama should have been prepared for such attacks, and this is yet another reason why he needed to utilize his skills as a communicator better during his first year in office.
Presenting more of a unified philosophy would have been of value as Frank suggested, but this is not as simple as it sounds. What is now classified as “the left” actually consists of a variety of views. We agree on opposing the policies of the far right but do not necessarily agree on what should be done instead. Still there are many common views held by a large percentage of Obama supporters which he could do a better job of vocalizing. The less he describes his own economic and political philosophy, the easier it is for the right to define him, falsely claiming he is a socialist and that he holds far-left views. This is also a problem which is common among Democrats and not limited to Obama.
Obama’s centrist views are far more consistent with the values upon which this nation was founded, and more consistent with the views of most Americans, than those of the extreme right wing which now dominate the Republican Party. It is necessary for Obama to do a better job of communicating this. He must do a better job of arguing how our liberal values of individual liberty, a market economy with adequate regulations to ensure it works fairly for those who participate rather than for the benefit of a few, and a sound foreign policy based upon international cooperation rather than preemptive warfare, differ from the opposing views promoted by the authoritarian right.