All of a sudden, people have noticed that we are in trouble, and many are saying it isn’t the president’s fault. All the bad news, from Iraq to Ukraine, from Libya and Syria to the Mexican border, just seems to have happened: Obama was standing there, golfing or shaking hands with donors, and, like a burst of bad weather, the winds blew, the skies opened, and things went to hell. Mysterious forces conspired against him, terrible setbacks occurred for no reason, and we were left with effects without a cause. His supporters commiserate with him and note his bad fortune at being in office at a time when events make his life difficult. Or they worry about the effect of all these misfortunes on his legacy. “Can Obama Weather the Current Geopolitical S—storm?” Mother Jones’s David Corn wondered recently. Judging from recent poll numbers—36 percent approve of his conduct of foreign relations—the answer appears to be “no.”
The reasons offered for why bad things aren’t his doing fall into three different categories: (1) The system is broken, the country is polarized, and the Republicans have become too insane to deal with; (2) stuff happens, and no one at all can do much about it; and (3) people think that the president ought to be Superman and solve all their problems, which is really expecting too much. As Joshua Keating wrote on July 21 in Slate: “There’s a tendency to judge U.S. foreign policy on the condition of the world at any given moment rather than the success of actual actions taken,” as if the condition and the actions can have no conceivable link. “U.S. leverage is limited,” wrote Robert Kuttner in the Huffington Post a day earlier. “U.S. projections of . . . bravado or prudence have little to do with” how recent events have come out. Added to this is the fact that we lack the easy simplicities of the good old days when Hitler and Stalin were murdering millions. “Republican jingoists scapegoat President Obama for all the world’s ills and try to impose a simple story of weakness and strength on events of stupefying complexity,” Kuttner added, complaining that today’s wars lack the grandeur and moral simplicity of the Cold War, and of course World War II. “Who are the good guys and bad guys in Syria and Iraq?” Corn concurred: “Barack Obama is in charge . . . at a time when the world seems to be cracking up more than usual. . . . There are no simple fixes to these nuance-drenched problems. . . . None of these matters are easily resolved.”
“Obama isn’t stalled out because he can’t lead,” writes Norman Ornstein in the Atlantic. No, the Democrats’ woes stem from the fact that the Republican party today is a fanatical opposition, bent for no very good reasons on bringing the president down. On a less partisan note, Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post looks back on our last three two-term presidents, and sees three men who campaigned as uniters turned into dividers by circumstance, or for reasons beyond their control. “Being president is the most powerful job in the world, at which you will most certainly fail,” he warns office-seekers, citing the arcs carved by both Obama and Bush 43: high marks at the start, a long slow deflation, and then a collapse in year six. What was the cause? “The decline of the bully pulpit as a persuasion mechanism . . . the deep partisanship . . . not only in Congress, but also in the electorate . . . the splintering of the mainstream media . . . the need to be ever-present . . . the difficulty of trying to drive home your preferred message of the day.”
Next on the list is the “Green Lantern Syndrome,” or the tendency to see presidents as mythical comic-book heroes, able to fly, see around and through anything, and pick up tall buildings. Thus in the Nation Eric Alterman foams at the mouth as he lambastes Maureen Dowd for indulging the “now platitudinous Beltway belief that Obama should just fix everything, already” instead of standing by, fundraising and hanging around with movie and rock stars, as the country and world go to hell. In Republican years, the fish rots from the head, but with Obama it’s merely preposterously high expectations.
And how do these theories stand up to inspection? Not all that well. As to the idea that stuff simply happens, sometimes it does, sometimes it does not. At the end of World War II, for example, nothing on earth could have dislodged the Soviet Army from Eastern Europe once it was there, but the fact that Western Europe stayed out of the Communist orbit was entirely owing to men. It was the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the formation of NATO that stopped the Communist advance in the middle of Europe, done by the will of Harry S. Truman with the ardent support of his next two successors, who held the line until the screws were tightened many years later by Ronald Reagan, and the Soviet empire collapsed from within.
Those years too were filled with “nuance-drenched problems,” and Truman, along with Dwight D. Eisenhower, Reagan, and John F. Kennedy, had to walk a very fine line between being weak enough to invite Russian aggression and aggressive enough to risk nuclear war. Replace Harry S. Truman with Henry A. Wallace (and make the three others a little less resolute) and the Cold War would have ended a whole lot less happily. Replace Barack Obama with John McCain, Mitt Romney, or Hillary Clinton, and Iraq would be now pretty much as it was when George W. Bush left it, with no jihadist state formed in the heart of the desert, ready and willing to bring the war home. When one thing goes wrong, it may be an accident, but when five do at once—Iraq, Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and our border—the man at the helm may have something to do with it, and a foreign policy based largely on John Lennon lyrics may be the proximate cause.
As for partisanship, it’s true that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama ran as uniters and ended by further dividing the country, but this outcome was not foreordained. Clinton ran as a moderate, a “new kind of Democrat,” but at the start of his tenure behaved very much like an old one, picking his cabinet by bean-counting diversity standards, and allowing his wife to draft a huge, complex health care reform bill that was vastly unpopular. Knocked on his heels in the 1994 midterms, he triangulated his way back to the center, signed welfare reform, and seemed on his way to brokering a historic and bipartisan deal on reforming entitlements when he was impeached on perjury charges related to his affair with a college-age intern, which put the culture wars back on the boil and ended his term on a less pleasant note. Bush entered under a cloud, as the very close recount was always going to leave the losing side feeling cheated, and made a catastrophic mistake after September 11, when he did not convene a war cabinet with Democrats in it, which would have tied both parties into the war effort, given the Democrats a greater stake in its success (and part of the blame for any mistakes), and would have expanded the pool of people from whom he was taking advice. With this, the course of the war might have gone very differently, Bush might have changed course in 2004, and not 2006, when public opinion was turning against him, and the Democrats might not have been able to weasel so easily out of their prior support for the war.
But Clinton and Bush were models of outreach compared with Obama, who burst on the national scene in July 2004 with a magnificent paean to red-and-blue unity, but by August 2009, acting as president, was tearing the country apart. Using the fiscal crisis as the pretext he needed to enact a progressive agenda, he passed extensive big-spending bills with no consensus behind them. But it was his passage of health care reform in the face of fierce opposition, expressed in surprise GOP wins in two big statewide elections, that brought him the resistance he deserved, especially when he used a technical loophole to ram Obamacare through Congress after Scott Brown’s capture of the “Ted Kennedy seat” in ultra-blue Massachusetts made it impossible to pass it in the legitimate, normal, and time-honored way.
“Liberals really do not understand emotionally the extent to which the Tea Party was created by the Affordable Care Act and the feeling that its government was simply steamrolling it,” as Megan McArdle tells us, correctly—a fact that eludes Obama’s apologists in the media, who seem to regard Tea Party resistance as an inexplicable phenomenon with which Obama’s own actions had nothing to do. And as for the Green Lantern part, they might have a better case if Obama hadn’t campaigned as the Green Lantern, a creature possessed of magical powers who could not only lift us all up into new ways of being but cause the rise of the oceans to halt.
Obama’s campaign rallies were revival meetings at which people fainted. Allusions were made to biblical figures, Moses and Jesus being just two of them, and his acceptance speech at his nominating convention in Denver featured a grandiose stage with Greek columns, suggesting parallels to Zeus. He was no commonplace politician but an exceptional figure and man. “Many of the president’s supporters thought they were voting for the Green Lantern in 2008,” observed Sean Trende, reeling off a long list of speeches in which Obama had promised “A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again.” As Trende put it, “The notion that Obama could provide unique leadership, rise above the old political rules, end the partisan bickering . . . and transform the country was the central theme of his presidential campaign.”
But when the transformative figure fails to deliver even commonplace competence, the letdown is even more terrible. Which leads to the last of all the excuses: The job is now simply too big.
When Republicans fail, it’s always their fault, but when things fall apart under Democrats, larger forces are always at work. In the first volume of his work, Reagan biographer Steven F. Hayward took a stroll with us down memory lane to the last time this happened, under one James Earl Carter: “The job of President is too difficult for any single person because of the complexity of the problems and the size of government,” pronounced the historian Barbara Tuchman. “As the country goes to the polls in the 47th national election, the Presidency as an institution is in serious trouble,” wrote the columnist Joseph Kraft. Political scientist Theodore Lowi said the presidency had become too big for even the likes of a Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Perhaps the burdens have become so great that, over time, no President will be judged adequate,” saidU.S. News and World Report. And Newsweek added, “The Presidency has in some measure defeated the last five men who have held it—and has persuaded some of the people who served them that it is in danger of becoming a game nobody can win.”
There was much more of that, but as Hayward points out, this line of thought stopped being talked about halfway through Reagan’s first term. “There’s a . . . reason for that,” he noted. “The elite complaints . . . always abstract from the substantive views and actions of the occupant. The possibility that ‘maybe we have a crappy president’ ” refuses to enter their minds.
Especially it refuses to enter their minds when the president in question is not only the spokesman for their favorite political outlook, but the embodiment of all of their dreams. If liberals felt compelled to protect a peanut farmer from Georgia, what must they feel for an Ivy League-trained exotic from Hyde Park, a man of the world and messiah, a speaker and writer, but never a doer; themselves, in short, to the ultimate power; themselves as they dreamed they could be? And that is the problem: If he fails, then they fail, and that cannot happen. So the fault is in the stars, in the cards, in unfair expectations—anywhere but where it should be.
Noemie Emery, a Weekly Standard contributing editor, is author most recently of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.