President Obama is now passing through what one must hope for both his sake and ours are the worst moments of a presidency no longer young. Abroad, the intervention in Libya has not had the quick and clear results he had hoped. While things may still go well, and one devoutly hopes that they do, US prestige is deeply engaged in a confused civil war in which all NATO’s firepower has been unable to turn the tide. As British and French advisers on the ground struggle to mold the rebels into an effective force and the allies thrash around to develop a politically responsible and accountable rebel leadership, the military’s lack of confidence in the civilian strategy is palpable.
At home, the President has been wounded both by his successes and his failures. Colin Powell referred to the US victory against Saddam Hussein as a “catastrophic success”; President Obama now has a couple of those of his own. The economic stimulus package aroused a fear on the hustings and, increasingly, in the bond markets about the looming fiscal catastrophe. The health care bill, an achievement the President expected and believed would cement both his place in history and a new era of liberal Democratic hegemony in American politics, continues to weaken the administration; the patient is not (yet) accepting the transplant.
These successes would not be so damaging if it were not for the core failure to date of the Obama presidency: the failure to deliver what looks to most Americans like the promise of an improving economy. Part of the problem is international; the turmoil in the Middle East, the global surge in commodity prices and the waning credibility of the dollar combine to push gas prices to $4.00. For tens of millions of American families the price of gas is both an economic indicator and a key variable in their disposable income. Add to that the persisting weakness in the housing market, where millions of families have watched the value of their prime asset shrink or disappear, continuing weak growth in employment and stagnation in wages, and there is a pervasive national sense that life is not getting better on President Obama’s watch.
The President looks like a man who is ridden by events; at just the moment when the nation craves a strong leader, the President looks weak, dodgy, uncertain. The contrast with the inflated hopes that an untested and inexperienced Senator Obama did so much to build up is crippling. Obama has fallen so far precisely because he and his supporters so hugely oversold him.
He once despised Bill Clinton for the comprising and triangulating that got him through his eight years. President Obama was going to do it differently: he was going to fight and win.
Perhaps he will; politics is full of surprises and it is still almost a year and a half until the election. But at the moment the President seems to be envying Clinton’s talents and attempting to emulate rather than scorn them. From anti-Clinton to aspiring Clinton is a long fall and it can’t be much fun.
We are starting to get to know this President a little better, and his chief besetting fault is increasingly clear: the President falls between stools. He is a man of half measures, a man who spends so much money hedging his bets that he loses even when he wins.
Time and again the President angers one side without conciliating the other. His public demand that Israel agree to a complete settlement freeze as a condition for peace talks alienated Israelis (and not just supporters of Prime Minister Netanyahu); his subsequent back peddling humiliated and angered the Palestinians. He pleased no one, fumbled what he had once proclaimed a crucial priority of his administration, and is left with reduced influence with both sides.
At home the President’s hedging has antagonized and energized the right without delivering the goods to his base on the left. The health care bill was so watered down from what candidate Obama proposed on the stump that key constituencies on the left were dismayed; the change was so large that the right was energized; the legislation so compromised and misshapen that it failed to satisfy. The stimulus was the same: large enough to stir up the deficit hawks but too small (and too poorly constructed) to launch a “V” shaped recovery. In the Middle East he has been too cautious and slow in siding with the revolutionaries to dent American unpopularity in the region — but by dropping US support for longtime ally Hosni Mubarak he antagonized and alarmed the Saudis.
Neither the Middle East despots nor the populists think President Obama is a reliable friend. In Afghanistan also he appears to have found a policy that is too robust to please the doves who want out no matter what — yet his hesitancy and announcement of withdrawal dates has not convinced either the Pakistanis or the Taliban that the US will remain until its basic conditions are met.
This repeated lunge for the sour spot — the place where costs are high and benefits are low — now seems to be a trademark of the President’s decision-making style. On the left it is earning him Carter comparisons from people like Eric Alterman; on the right it means that despite his compromises and yielding of significant ground he continues to feed the incandescent hostility of his bitterest foes. Worst of all, it suggests to people abroad and at home that the way to manipulate this “split the difference”, consensus-seeking President is to raise your demands. If you are going to get something like 50 percent of what you ask for, ask for twice as much as you really want. And with this Presidential style, the squeaking wheel gets the grease. Not surprisingly, all the wheels have begun to squeak.
Here is the paradox we face: The President is a consensus-seeker whose decision making style rewards polarization and a conciliator who loses friends without winning over enemies.
The President’s problem is not, I think, that he seeks compromise. It is that the type of compromise he chooses is so ineffective. Splitting the difference is not leadership; leadership is looking at the positions of two sides and finding creative new directions that give something to all sides — but move the ball down the field.
Take the original sin of this administration: the failure to handle the economic stimulus package in a way that would have given the President enough fiscal room to jump start the economy in the short term without spooking either the voters or the bond markets. Hindsight is easy, but even at the time many observers warned that the stimulus was poorly crafted.
President Obama in effect offered a compromise stimulus package: to avoid angering Republicans the overall numbers were smaller than the more left wing economists in Democratic circles thought would work, but liberals in Congress were greatly mollified by the freedom that the President gave them to craft the stimulus to benefit key constituencies.
As a result, the overall package was deeply flawed. The headline stimulus number was enough to energize Republican and conservative deficit hawks, but left Obama vulnerable to charges from the left that he hadn’t done enough to create jobs in the deepest recession since World War Two. Worse, the stimulus was inefficient, with its money spent over a long period of time. Much of the spending would come in only years after passage, significantly reducing the prospects that the stimulus would kick start the economy.
Now the President and the Democrats generally are stuck in a trap of their own manufacture. State and local governments, starved for funding and losing the federal assistance in the stimulus package are laying off workers and cutting benefits from one end of the country to the other. Unemployment, especially including the long-term unemployed who have dropped out of the labor market, remains painfully high. Key Democratic constituencies feel the administration’s economic policies have failed even as the political logic forces President Obama and his team to start negotiating deficit cuts. He is back to disappointing his friends without winning over his enemies, and that is no good place for a President to be.
There seem to be several factors at work that repeatedly push the President into doomed compromises. One is ideology; the President is no socialist or far-left crusader, but he is an urban liberal whose core convictions are on the left end of the center-left. He is smart enough to know that he can’t always or even often get exactly what he wants, but having to govern from a position to the right of his own heart puts him in an awkward position. It is hard to be creative when you are constantly on the back foot.
By instinct, President Obama is not a politician. The President, like many other bright Ivy-educated lawyers, views the world through a legalistic prism, one that underestimates both the power and legitimacy of political considerations in the administration of government. Closing Guantanamo and trying KSM in Lower Manhattan seem both obviously necessary and unambiguously good to the legalistic mind. The ward-heeling politician knows better. This lack of instinctive appreciation for the crooked pathways of the political mindset (a characteristic President Obama shares with Woodrow Wilson) further undercuts the President’s ability to play the political system like a true virtuoso.
Another problem is experience, or rather the lack of it. While two years in the White House have made him a much more seasoned and experienced figure, there is still a lot about American and international politics that is new to him and to some degree alien to his instincts and values. Moreover, he came to the White House with next to no experience at running bureaucracies or leading legislative coalitions. He lacks Lyndon Johnson’s sure sense of what Congress will or won’t do (not to mention Johnson’s legendary ability to build support for his agenda), and he lacks the international seasoning of a George H. W. Bush or Richard Nixon. This kind of experience is what is necessary both at home and abroad to understand the agendas and instincts of various parties and to figure out innovative, forward-looking ideas that can work around entrenched positions and make genuine progress. Another term or two in the Senate and some time as governor of Illinois might have made Barack Hussein Obama a cannier and more formidable president. (Bill Clinton had served five extremely educational terms as governor of Arkansas.)
Finally, there is a kind of temperamental caution that has not, so far, served this President well. Unlike George W. Bush, who liked to place large and even reckless bets, President Obama likes to hedge. If he puts four chips on black, he almost immediately wants to put three chips on red. He surges in Afghanistan, but time limits the surge. He bombs Libya, but vows to keep the boots offshore. This can look like a prudent step to limit losses; in some cases it may make bigger losses inevitable.
It is much too soon to write this President off and, for the sake of the United States and the wider world, one continues to wish him the best. Politically the odds are still better than even that he will be re-elected (although they are less than they were). He and his team are much more seasoned than they were and we can expect a determined effort to relaunch the administration at home and abroad. The Republicans at home and his enemies abroad are also fallible and will give him opportunities. We are likely to see one or more serious new crises blow up that will give him opportunities to seize the initiative.
But to succeed going forward, the President will have to grow and to change. What he is doing now isn’t working, and he needs a reset.