The Magazine

The Obama Delusion, Explained

Making excuses for the president.

Sep 10, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 48 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Did you know that bitching about President Obama is now considered a “tradition” among liberals? It is. Things move so fast with those guys. One person has a gripe, another person chimes in, a third grouses about this or that, and the next thing you know—it’s a “tradition.” Very progressive.

Hope? Change?

David Malan

“Your essay is in a tradition of trying to understand the reality of President Obama versus the promise of Candidate Obama,” said a man named Ta-Nehisi Coates, interviewing the writer James Fallows. Both men work for the Atlantic magazine, which just last week published an e-book by Fallows called The Obama Presidency, Explained. The interview is packaged with the e-book, which is mostly a revised version of an Atlantic article Fallows wrote this spring. Fallows is the complete Atlantic magazine writer, containing within himself the character of his magazine in all its facets: lacking in humor and color, a bit gassy, unfailingly high-minded and earnest, liberal without overdoing it, intelligent, well-intentioned more often than not, and boring.

The Obama Presidency, Explained is in this same Atlantic, uh, tradition. But the book is worth a download for what it tells us about liberal disenchantment with President Obama—that is, how one of his sophisticated admirers perceives the president’s failure to reconcile his uninspiring presidency with the dizzying expectations he goosed them all into way back in 2008.

Fallows nicely illustrates this liberal consternation with a joke that the comedian Seth Meyers addressed to the president at a Washington ballroom dinner. This was in 2011, when even his most ardent admirers were beginning to wonder where the hell all that hope and change had got to. 

“I’ll tell you who could definitely beat you,” Meyers said to Obama, referring to the upcoming election. “2008 Barack Obama. You would have loved him.” 

Conservatives who consider Obama a thinly disguised Leninist will be surprised that liberals have grown disenchanted with their onetime hero. But you can’t underestimate the naïveté and ignorance that inflated the bubble of the Obama Delusion—how fragile it was, how vulnerable to the first pinprick of reality. It turns out they really did expect a “transformative” presidency that would move us beyond left and right. They meant it! And in this childish belief they were encouraged by their candidate, who might have meant it too, for the same reasons. Obama’s admiration for Barack Obama, after all, was even greater than theirs, and his ignorance of the messy practical realities of self-government almost as complete. 

By now, Fallows writes, “there is plenty of evidence about the things Obama and his team cannot do.” These include managing the various crises in the Middle East, overcoming the culture wars, and restoring the economy to the full bloom of health. The author might have added several more items: writing a budget for the federal government, let’s say, or containing health care costs, or reducing, rather than enlarging, the federal debt. .  .  . I’m sure you can come up with a few items of your own. Even balanced with what Fallows insists are Obama’s successes—installing Obama-care, withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, “encouraging the Arab Spring” (?), managing relations with China—the executive tasks that were beyond Obama’s competence should be enough to declare a mostly failed presidency. 

Yet it is this conclusion that the president’s supporters, no matter how disenchanted, cannot permit themselves. It’s an election year, and unspeakable horrors await the world if Obama loses. So Fallows comes up with an ingenious premise for his book: History’s verdict on Obama’s presidency will be largely determined by whether he wins reelection in November. “Our judgment about ‘really good’ and ‘mediocre’ presidents is colored by how long they serve,” he writes. “A failure to win reelection places a ‘one-term loser’ asterisk on even genuine accomplishments.” 

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