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.
“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.”
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.
For all his apparent dispassion and clinical detachment, Fallows remains an Obama Delusionist at heart. He still insists on the president’s eloquence, “his ability to inspire and motivate people en masse.” In support of this increasingly implausible view, he mentions only two speeches, as Delusionists always do: Obama’s speech in 2008 about his crazy pastor, and his touching address after the Tucson shootings last year. He ignores, meanwhile, the hundreds of phlegmatic utterances Obama has delivered routinely since, including big production numbers like his State of the Union addresses and his nationally televised pep talks. His wandering responses in press conferences also go unmentioned. Still Fallows insists: “As an explainer of ideas through rhetoric, Obama has few recent peers.” This is true, in a way. Obama gave more than a hundred speeches to promote his health care bill and watched its popularity steadily fall; the more he talked the less persuasive he became. Not many inspirational orators could make such a claim.
Democrats will be pleased to find notes of hope in The Obama Presidency, Explained. Lately, Fallows writes, “after three years of seeming to shy from ‘partisan’ rhetoric,” Obama has shown reassuring signs of Truman-like shamelessness. “Give ’Em Hell Barry” has made recess appointments, changed government policy through the kind of executive order that horrified Democrats during the Bush administration, and linked Republicans to the Tea Party as it “spins the Republican party off to the extreme.” (Like so many commentators, Fallows has seen the Republican party spinning off to the extreme since the Nixon administration.) If Obama can maintain this newfound persona into November, Fallows believes, he can win. The rising-above-partisanship thing is no longer operative.
In his interview with Coates, at the book’s end, having offered what I’m sure he believes is an unblinkered view of the president and his failings, Fallows makes clear that all the arguments in the foregoing pages are, finally, not particularly germane to the question at hand: Should Obama be reelected?
“I’m going to vote for him,” Fallows says, “because: One, I prefer Democratic to Republican economic policy. . . . Two, I prefer Democratic foreign policy to Republican foreign policy. . . . Three, I prefer Democratic to Republican judicial/social policy.”
Notice that the particulars of the Obama presidency have vanished altogether. It’s a bit of a letdown for a reader who’s been patient enough to slog through his e-book. James Fallows will vote for President Obama because Obama is a Democrat and so is he.
Well, why didn’t he just say so in the first place? Why do Democrats always make things so complicated?
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.