Barack Obama has now been center stage for two years—one as a presidential candidate (and president elect) and one as president. Americans have begun to take their measure of the man, judging him to have been a remarkable success in his first role and struggling in his second. Obama recently awarded himself the grade of “a good, solid B plus” for his performance in office, but the public is not as lenient. The gap in the assessment between Obama the candidate and Obama the president is enormous. Having entered office with a public approval of 70 percent, he has fallen today below 50 percent, the steepest such decline at this point of any first-term president in the postwar period. Obama also has the lowest approval rating at the end of a president’s first year.
A drop in some degree in public approval is not unusual and might even be regarded as natural. Campaigns feed on dreams, governing confronts realities. But Obama’s decline appears to hold greater significance than for past presidents, as it reflects a qualitative change in perception of his image. This shift became clear during his acceptance last month of the Nobel Peace Prize, an award that was proposed just as he took office and that reflected the heady expectations of the campaign. In Oslo, Obama was a much-diminished figure, compelled by the public’s judgment of his record to concede that “my accomplishments are slight.” The actor Will Smith, invited to perform at a gala honoring the president, was one of many forced to respond to the awkward question of whether Obama merited his award. His answer, obviously in the affirmative, harked back to the spirit of the campaign: “Barack Obama as an idea marks an evolutionary flash point for humanity.”
Smith’s comment holds the key to explaining the gap between the two Obamas. The 2008 campaign was an event that unfolded on an entirely different plane from ordinary politics. It signaled the emergence on a worldwide scale of the “Religion of Humanity,” for which Obama became the symbol. What Americans have discovered is that being the representative of this transpolitical movement does not fit easily, if it fits at all, with serving as president of the United States.
There is, to be sure, a conventional explanation for the Obama gap that focuses entirely on American politics. The storyline is by now familiar. In an epic journey, Obama came from nowhere, and against all odds, to capture the presidency. His campaign, which was so brilliant in building enthusiasm and attracting support, did little to provide Americans with a clear idea of where he planned to take the country. The result has been a disconnect between Obama as candidate and as president.
This explanation clearly has merit. The Obama campaign was not programmatic—it had no slogan like Clinton’s “New Democrat” in 1992 or George W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism” in 2000—but thematic. Obama’s appeal was organized around two general notions: promoting “change” and fostering a new tone of politics (reform, transparency, and especially postpartisanship). “Change” accommodated many different expectations. For this reason, as late as the time that Obama took office, it was unclear whether it meant pragmatic and incremental adjustment or fundamental transformation. The promise of a new style of politics, a ploy that dates all the way back to the “outsider” campaigns of Ross Perot, was one that Obama quickly tossed aside. Indeed, on the core issue that once defined reform politics—campaign finance regulation—he did not even bother to wait for the election, but exempted himself before the final campaign began.
Yet even if all this is true, it cannot fully account for the decline in Obama’s approval ratings. For one thing, it has never been considered a requirement of American politics to wage programmatic campaigns. Candidates like Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 have not only run and won with thematic campaigns, but also gone on to succeed quite well as presidents. For another, when all is said and done Americans have shown that they can be surprisingly forgiving about “process” and “tonal” transgressions. The discovery that Barack Obama is a partisan who cuts deals behind the scenes with big interests may be dismaying, but it is no more shocking than learning that there was gambling going on in Rick’s Café Americain.