The public’s judgment of President Obama is that his performance in office is not so great. Nearly every opinion poll shows that more Americans disapprove of how he’s doing his job than approve. Sometimes the gap between disapprove and approve is more than 10 percentage points.
But public opinion isn’t the only way to assess a president’s effectiveness. In 2000, Fred Greenstein, a scholar of the presidency at Princeton, came up with six “qualities that bear on presidential performance.” While they are subjective measures open to disagreement, they’re nonideological, nonpartisan, and they offer a useful way to judge presidents.
So the question is: Does Obama exhibit the qualities Greenstein says are important for any president? Let’s look at the six:
• Effectiveness as a political communicator. Even today, some in the political community and the press regard Obama as an eloquent communicator. They’re wrong. He’s become windy, boring, whiny, and unpersuasive. He has a case to make for his presidency, but he makes it poorly. After the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012, he delivered a series of speeches advocating new gun control legislation. When he finished, national support for tighter restrictions on gun sales and ownership had fallen.
It’s true the bully pulpit isn’t what it once was as a vehicle to rally the public. But other vehicles are available, such as the media. The problem is Obama thinks the press is puerile and annoying. Thus presidential press conferences are infrequent. When he honored the NFL champion Seattle Seahawks at the White House last week, Obama said he was “sorry” running back Marshawn Lynch wasn’t there. “I just wanted to say how much I admire his approach to the press,” Obama said, prompting laughter. Lynch refuses to talk to the press.
One reason for the failure of Obama’s speeches is their sameness. He insists the public loves his current agenda (minimum wage hike, more money for infrastructure, etc.), blames Republicans for blocking it, and uses rhetorical devices such as straw men. Republicans, he said again last week at a Maryland fundraiser, don’t believe “we as a community, as a country” should give people “a hand up.” I don’t know a single Republican with that attitude.
• Organizational capacity. This isn’t an Obama strength either. He rarely seems to be on top of events. The VA scandal caught him by surprise. He had no idea the rollout of Obamacare might be disastrous. Now he claims, absent convincing evidence, that Obamacare is a success and shouldn’t be criticized.
We don’t know the inner workings of the Obama White House, largely because of its lack of transparency. But second terms are often populated by second-rate advisers, and Obama’s is no exception. The biggest problem is lack of competence. And Obama has trouble firing the duds, perhaps out of fear that it would reflect badly on him.
• Political skill. Any politician who wins a presidential election is smart, deft, and cunning. But prevailing in Washington takes more than just those skills. In 2008, Obama assured us he knew how to cure the polarization and dysfunction that impede bipartisan progress. Turns out he didn’t, or if he did, he didn’t try.
Obama succeeded in his first two years, enacting Obamacare, a “stimulus,” and a federal takeover of student loans. But any president would have succeeded with majorities in Congress as large as Obama had. Since then, with Republicans controlling the House, he’s fared miserably.
Why is this? Is it solely the fault of Republicans? Hardly. Obama doesn’t get along with those who disagree with him. In negotiations with Republicans, he lectures and grows petulant when he doesn’t get his way. He lacks a knack for crafting compromises, which is another way of saying he doesn’t know how to lead in strained circumstances.
• Vision. Obama has one. It’s a left-wing vision, and it’s mostly coherent. He’s for raising taxes, redistributing the wealth, giving federal regulators and bureaucrats more power than they’ve ever dreamed of, and reducing America’s sway in the world. For all his complaints about gridlock, he’s achieved a good bit of this. Oh, and he wants the national political discussion to focus on race, poverty, sexism, and fairness. He’s making headway on that too.
Greenstein, in his book The Presidential Difference, says vision “has a variety of connotations.” One is the capacity to inspire, and Obama can inspire the left (but only the left). Another is a “set of overarching goals.” And Obama has those. But marketing his vision to a majority of Americans—that, he hasn’t mastered.