The Magazine

The Trouble with Obama

He only seemed to be all things to all people.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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For a talented man who ran a textbook campaign and was declared a great president before he even took office, Barack Obama has been having a rather hard time. The Midas Touch of 2008 has seemed to desert him. The famed oratory has not made a difference. The uniting president has turned into the ultra-divider. The music has died.

It's less that McCain voters oppose his proposals than that his own voters are turning against him: His approval ratings, above 70 percent when he first took office, now are near or less than 50 percent as independents, who gave him his win last November, give him negative ratings, and are dropping away. Presidents tend to drift down to earth as good will is ground down in the process of governing, but Obama's decline has been sudden and swift. Democrats predictably blame this on race, as if the strain of feigning enlightenment had become too much all at once for millions of people, but this seems unlikely in the case of a figure who only a few months ago was so widely adored.

In fact, he may have been adored rather too widely, by too many people wanting incompatible things. As disillusion sets in, it becomes more and more clear that he and his country misread one another. People embraced him for opposite reasons, while he held mistaken ideas about them; lies were not told, but conclusions were drawn that were not wholly accurate. He is what he seemed, only not that completely. And here are just five of the ways.

I. THE INSULAR INTERNATIONALIST.

On the surface, Obama is a man of the world and of varied experience, who has had an existence of contrasts, and seen many aspects of life. He has seen life in Hawaii, Jakarta, and mainland America, life in Cambridge, Manhattan, Chicago, and Washington; he has genetic connections to Kansas and Kenya; he knows the life of the privileged (the political elite and the academic community), the life of the in-between (his childhood family), and the life of the poor (on the South Side of Chicago, where he held his first job). Few American politicians have ever had a geographical reach so diverse and so dazzling--or a political planet so narrow and small.

Obama has spent his entire adult life confined in the bubble of deep blue America--a place that makes up less than one-fifth of the country--in blue states, in blue cities, in blue states of mind. His city neighborhoods--Morningside Heights, Hyde Park, and Cambridge--are the back yards of elite universities; he worked in the ghetto (and met its denizens again in Jeremiah Wright's congregation); and he rose in the urban ethnic machine of Chicago: the perfect trifecta of liberal politics, where people's looks, speech, and dress may seem to be varied, but the voting and thinking go only one way. It is a real world, but a small one, and in a real sense misleading; one that sees suburbs and small towns as strange, foreign countries; where centrists are rare, and the right nonexistent; where Bill Ayers really is just a guy from the neighborhood (and the Reverend Wright is nothing unusual), and where no one and no party disputes that the state is the answer, that "social justice" demands redistribution, that less wealthy whites cling to God and to guns out of "bitterness," and that racist white cops (all white cops are racist) always act "stupidly" when they are forced to have dealings with blacks.

Obama knows people who make laws, and people who teach law, and people who depend upon help from the government, but few people who make things, or run things, or work in the market economy; in other words, he doesn't know his own country, and has no sense where its center of gravity lies. He seems surprised at the resistance to his agenda: Who knew there were so many millions who are staggered by deficits, who don't see the point of identity politics, and want the state largely out of their lives? Not he, and he still doesn't seem to believe it, viewing the fringe (the far left) as the majority, and the center-right that is the core of the country as a demented fringe element that can be dismissed, condescended to, or shoved off to one side. A man of the world, but not of his country, he is just sensing the depth of his own lack of knowledge. He doesn't seem eager to learn.

II. TOO MUCH, TOO SOON

As the biracial son of an absentee father, his life less than smooth in its formative stages, Obama was sold as a much-vetted figure, matured by the pressures of life. Once again, this is true, but in some ways, it isn't: His struggles were real, but were not overwhelming, and compared with others', his sufferings seem slight.

Ronald Reagan's father was alcoholic, and often embarrassed his family. Bill Clinton's father died before he was born, his stepfather was violent, and his working mother (much like Obama's) was sometimes away. Theodore Roosevelt struggled with asthma, and nearly went mad when his beloved young wife suddenly died in her twenties. Franklin Roosevelt had a nerve-wracking marriage, and was crippled by polio. John Kennedy lost a brother, a brother-in-law, and his favorite sister before he (and they) had reached 30; saw a retarded sister institutionalized after a long fight by his family to raise her as normal; was wracked with pain and expected to die in his forties (he did), and had last rites performed four times before he was murdered. It is true that he and the elder George Bush were chauffeured to private school in the depths of the Depression, but both belonged to a war generation, volunteered for the service (Bush in his teens), nearly perished in combat, and saw many friends die. Others faced many professional setbacks: Ronald Reagan's Hollywood career flickered out in his 40s, and he had to start over in midlife, as far less than a star. George H.W. Bush lost a Senate race to Lloyd Bentsen and the nomination to Reagan 10 years after that; Bill Clinton was almost destroyed by his reelection loss after one term as governor; George W. Bush was a failure until he reached 40. Obama was not born a Bush or a Kennedy, and he was denied the normative two-parent idyll, but his adult years have been free of large setbacks and losses. And his political life has been charmed.

Obama entered politics in 1996 as a state senator, and 12 years later was president, after a rise so nearly free of struggle (he lost a congressional primary) that it appeared to be greased by the gods. He wanted to run for the state legislature, and the incumbent retired. He wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, and his two major rivals were sidelined by scandal. (Republicans had to import a talk show host from out of state for a doomed run against him: Obama walked away with 70 percent of the vote.) Tapped to deliver the Democrats' keynote speech at their 2004 convention in Boston, Obama emerged with even more luster, and entered the Senate a star. Three years later, he was running for president, while crowds swooned, shrieked, and passed out at his rallies. He held a small, steady lead through most of the summer, but fell briefly behind for two weeks in September, when John McCain's surprise pick of Governor Sarah Palin made the ticket catch fire. Then the markets imploded, and the election fell back in his lap.

In the end, he won more states than anyone since the elder George Bush two decades earlier, vanquished two weighty figures of national stature, and broke a race bar once thought to be permanent. Before he was sworn in, he was declared a great man by most of the media, and ranked next to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. "He ventured forth to bring Light to the World," wrote Gerard Baker, in what seemed at the time only partly a parody. "As he grew, the Child walked in the path of righteousness," Baker informed us. "And the Elders were astonished at what they heard and said among themselves, 'Verily, who is this Child that he opens our hearts and minds to the audacity of hope?' " John Kennedy, a previous golden boy, was younger than Obama was when he was elected, and his career too had had a dazzling upward trajectory. But he had served 14 years in Congress, his first Senate win was a hard-fought upset against the odds, and as president he carried a note with "100,000" on it, for the number of popular votes by which he had beaten Richard M. Nixon, as a hedge against hubris and vanity. But past childhood, Obama had never lost anything, had few close calls, and never had to work all that hard for his victories. His hubris would be unconstrained.

The scholar Charles Murray has said that no one should work in the White House until he has been chastened by disappointment and hardship, and taught the frustrations and limits of life, and of governance. But Obama's experience has taught him the opposite lesson: that he is invincible, that there is nothing on earth that he cannot accomplish, that magical forces steer fortune his way. Why can't he push four giant programs through Congress in six months? He's the first nonwhite president. Why can't he remake the structure of government? He beat John McCain and Hillary Clinton, an iconic war hero and a former first lady who was backed by her husband, the president. To Obama's mistaken belief that the whole country thinks as do Chicago and Berkeley, he has added the belief that if it does not, he can get his way anyhow, as he has already worked miracles. To insularity, he is adding the arrogance born of easy and early successes, which is setting him up for his first major failure.

III. A MATTER OF TEMPERAMENT

The third reason Obama is now in trouble is that his demeanor and his agenda don't fit. Obama's demeanor is calm, cool, and rational. It reassures, and it soothes. It is essentially conservative in its implications, in that it seems to move calmly, and in predictable ways. In the campaign, it was no less than pure magic: It set him apart from the more intense John McCain and Hillary Clinton; it was the reason the associations with Bill Ayers and the Reverend Wright failed to gain traction; it was the reason an audience, wrung out by eight years of Clinton Fatigue topped by eight years of still more intense Bush Exhaustion, looked at its owner and swooned. "The man is calm. The man is unflappable," David Brooks said on PBS after the third presidential debate last October.

"There is just an eerie almost coolness about him," Mark Shields interjected. "I think his steadiness, his temperament, has been the dramatic theme of this campaign, dramatic in being undramatic," Brooks later told Charlie Rose. "What struck me is how incredibly even he is.  ...   It's like you're camping, and you wake up one morning, and there is a mountain. And the next morning, there's a mountain. Obama is just the mountain. He is just there."

There is reason to think that Brooks is correct, and that voters did vote for this "there-ness," this even demeanor, this cool. But moderate temperaments have always meant moderate politics: Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were cool, and they defined the Cold War consensus; Colin Powell is cool, and he occupies the dead center of American politics, which is why he would have won in a landslide if he had ever appeared on a national ticket--and why he could never have done so, as he would have driven the bases of both parties insane.

But if they are the rule, Obama is the exception that proves it, and millions of people who voted for him because they had fallen in love with the mountain are stunned to find out that he wants to move it, and in directions they never had dreamed. Obama won because, while his agenda appealed to the far-left and activist base of his party that wanted sweeping and radical action, his temperament drew in the moderate middle, which wanted a rest, and a rather more modest change in direction. The good thing from his point of view is that his smoothness helped him put together a really big coalition. The bad thing is that the two wings of the coalition now want two quite different things.

This is the reason Obama's battles are being waged inside his party, as his two different classes of backers collide. The "temperament" voters want the "small c" conservatism that is incremental and patient, and never moves terribly far from the center, while the "agenda" supporters want the "big l" liberalism that means sweeping and radical change. The temperament voters are unnerved by the bailouts, by Government Motors, by deficits in the trillions, and by public control of the health care professions; the agenda voters want even more of all of the above. The temperament voters want to tamp down the partisan warfare, the agenda voters want to ramp it up further; the temperament voters want a do-over on health care that is at once incremental and bipartisan; the agenda voters want to force radical fantasies down the throats of dissenters. The temperament voters, some of whom are independents, are peeling off from Obama, as the agenda voters become even more fervent. And there are more issues on which they may soon disagree.

IV. THE COLOR OF JUSTICE

As the first half-Kenyan to become an American president, Obama was a hero to two groups of people, who looked to him for opposite things. He was both and at once the racial avenger and biracial healer; the promoter of identity politics, and the man who would kill it; the man who would promote race-conscious remedies and make the issue central to the national discourse, and the man who would lead us into the postracial future, in which race would never be mentioned again.

The first group cheered Sonia Sotomayor as the Wise Latina who would bring her ethnic perspective to Supreme Court decisions; the second was fine with her gender and background, but bristled at what looked like her assertion that her background and gender made her sure to rule well. The first group cheered Obama when he said Sgt. James Crowley acted "stupidly" when he briefly arrested presidential friend Henry ("Skip") Gates during a fracas following a report of a break-in at Gates's residence; the second group applied the description to Obama himself. The first group agreed when Maureen Dowd and others said townhall and tea-party fury was fueled by the worst sort of prejudice; the second did not.

The White House has been smart enough to realize that while the first group was noisy and frequently organized, the second was a great deal more numerous, and that for every racist who had been correctly tagged, there were a great many others who were maligned by the charges, and would only be further enraged. This, and the fact that Sotomayor was confirmed only after denying repeatedly that she thought Latinas were inherently wiser than others, and that Obama's poll numbers dropped after the Cambridge fiasco, should warn the president that he is playing with fire, that his race-conscious friends are also his enemies, and that he is walking a tightrope it would not be too hard to fall off.

V. EXCEPT FOR WHAT?

Barack Obama is often described as an inspiring figure, in the vaunted tradition of Reagan and Kennedy, who can arouse in his hearers a sense of great purpose, and set them to dreaming great dreams. He's a fine speaker, but Reagan and Kennedy inspired by their message: the idea that the country is unique among nations, has a singular mission to promote freedom everywhere; in effect, that the country is great. On this point, Obama is dumb. He stresses the country's faults, not its virtues; goes on apology tours, where he asks the forgiveness of nations with much grimmer histories; calls his country arrogant and dismissive of others, who deserve more respect. Cities on hills, beloved of Reagan and Kennedy, are not in his lexicon, and the idea of the "last best hope" of humanity has not crossed his lips. He finds the country exceptional only in its pretense to be so, and has been at pains to let England and Israel, who gave us our values, know that they're also not much. He doesn't seem to be moved by democracy either, as shown by his indifference to those fighting for it in Iran and Honduras, and his indulgence of oppressive regimes.

A normal candidate who struck most of these notes would quickly be tossed on the ash heap of history, but this isn't your average bloke. He is in himself a historical moment, whose breakthrough election was, as was the moon landing, a great giant step for mankind. While denying American greatness, he seems to embody it: No other country had ever atoned for its sins in so stunning a manner, or come quite so far quite so fast.

The candidate at once of the left and the center, of the hot and the cool, of the race conscious and colorblind, he is the candidate too of those who deny that their country is special, and those who believe that he proves that it is. The upside of this is that it allows him to run down the country and still seem aspirational; the downside is that public tolerance for his world view has always been limited (think Jimmy Carter), and sooner or later the truth will come through. If he becomes Carter II, then the glow will fade quickly. No president who hasn't stood up for American greatness has ever been loved for too long.

These are the five contradictions to Barack Obama that have misled the public, without the intent to deceive. He does have a complex, exotic, and intriguing background; he did rise by his gifts from inauspicious beginnings; he does have a genuinely moderate temperament (it is not possible to lie for this long about one's personality); and it is hardly his doing that being biracial--a net minus when he was born at the start of the civil rights movement--had, by the time he was running for president, turned into a tactical plus. But these things, which were true, were not the whole story. His background was wide, but his political world was remarkably limited; his early years were hard, but his political rise was too easy and effortless; his temperament was cool, but his agenda was otherwise; and in a number of areas he appealed at the same time to quite different people, whose desires were wholly opposed.

If his backers were fooled, so was Obama, who misread the electoral mood. He was fueled by his base, but the voters he won with were the slice in the middle, who gave him a slight, steady lead in the election year summer, switched to McCain after the St. Paul convention, and then switched back with a vengeance after the great market meltdown tipped the election into Obama's lap. This gave him his ultimate 7-point margin, shifted some red states in his direction, and secured him the huge lead in the House and the Senate that is one of his sources of strength. That slice in the middle wanted a center-left tilt (emphasis on "center") and not the progressive agenda. They wanted the "small c" conservative temperament; the post-racial healer; the barrier breaker, who would prove that their country was great.

Marc Ambinder laments on the website of the Atlantic that "the majority that elected Barack Obama     has gone silent" in the face of the recent vigorous protests, "or, if not silent, isn't nearly as potent as they were nearly ten months ago." But "the majority that elected Barack Obama" has ceased to exist, having hemorrhaged millions on millions of voters, some of whom are now going to protests themselves. The trouble with Barack Obama is that he was too many things to too many people, and no one liked all of them. He was simply too good to be true.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.