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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This is the kind of insight you often find in highbrow journalism: sweepingly explanatory and grandly historical and, upon reflection, not really true. It’s easy to argue that the reputation of George W. Bush would be higher if he’d been pushed out after his first term, thus escaping responsibility for all the mistakes in the second term and leaving only the memory of his post-9/11 resolve. His one-termer dad, meanwhile, is commonly praised for his truncated prosecution of the Iraq war and his violation of his no-tax pledge, widely understood nowadays as an act of political courage (suicidal, but gutsy). Even the administration of Jimmy Carter, for whom Fallows once wrote speeches, is remembered fondly by an increasing number of political types for its deregulation of industry and its insistence on human rights as an element of American foreign policy. 

Fallows needs to believe that presidential reputation is shaped in large part by reelection because it helps him get Obama off the hook. On the matter of Obama-care, for example, he quotes Lawrence Summers, who says that if Obama is reelected his health care scheme will stand as an achievement as grand and uncontroversial as Medicare seems today. If he loses and Obama-care is dismantled, Summers says, his efforts will be a sign of the president’s “hubris” and “overreach.”

But this is a chicken-hearted way to look at Obama’s record. Obama-care is either a good idea or a bad one, with merits or deficiencies that are easy enough to grasp and argue about right now; there’s plenty of evidence to decide whether it was an act of hubris. And the president’s economic stimulus, to cite another example, has been a failure even by the criteria he himself set (“If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition”). Pretending that the merits of the Obama presidency are somehow undefined forestalls the debate—how can you defend a record that’s inconclusive? 

Even so, Fallows acknowledges that Obama was “unsuited [to the presidency] in many ways”; his lack of executive experience and his personal chilliness worked to his disadvantage. This was to be expected, Fallows writes, because “every president is ill-suited to office, each in a different way.” The point is true but trite. There’s no such thing as a perfect husband or wife, either, but that tells you nothing about whether this husband or that wife is a good match. But again it nicely shifts our attention away from a judgment about Obama’s manifest failure as a president onto secondary questions—telling us how he’s failed without admitting that he has.

Fallows’s main complaint is that Obama has been too nice. He decided “not to fight” a stubborn and underhanded Republican opposition. In the massive catalogue of the partisan kibitzer’s complaints, He didn’t fight hard enough is the easiest to make and most difficult to refute, second only to He didn’t get his message out as an explanation for failure or incompetence. (“Let’s you and him fight!”) Our guy didn’t fight hard enough simply means Our guy lost, the wussy. Victory alone satisfies political followers and persuades them that their leader has been properly vicious in support of their cause. Until then they warm themselves, as Fallows does, with dreams of Harry Truman, the patron saint of struggling incumbents. Losers from Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter, from George H.W. Bush to Bob Dole, have invoked the sacred name. Having overcome long odds with shameless demagoguery in 1948, Truman represents the idea that a cause is lost only from insufficient belligerence. 

Fallows is vague about what would have happened had Obama “chosen to fight.” Would the health care bill suddenly have become popular? Would cap and trade legislation suddenly have squirted out of Congress and become law over a united and bipartisan opposition? Would Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have been tried in downtown Manhattan and the Illinois cow country now swarm with imprisoned terrorists imported from a shuttered Guantánamo? It never occurs to the partisan mind that his causes often fail simply because most people think they’re terrible ideas. 

As for the personal chilliness that disappoints Fallows, we should be surprised that he’s surprised. The self-love that freed Obama to portray himself during the campaign in laughably grandiose (but inspirational!) terms accounts for his “inability to connect with people” in smaller settings. Now that his workplace has moved from the center of college sports arenas where he was surrounded by hysterical youngsters to offices and hallways and conference tables where men of guile and cunning gather, the power of his ego has failed him. 

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