Modern presidents are often most remembered for single, iconic moments. Some are good. FDR's inaugural address proclaimed we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Kennedy's challenged us to ask not what we can do for ourselves, but for our country. Reagan's speech at the Brandenburg Gate demanded that Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall.
Some, on the other hand, aren't as good. The image of Eisenhower on the golf course gave a false impression -- one that lasted decades -- that he was a part-time chief executive who mostly delegated duties to his staff. Carter didn't actually use the word "malaise" in his famous speech, but that tone-deaf address nevertheless underscored how out of sync he was with the rest of the country. And of course, who can forget, "I shall resign the presidency, effective noon tomorrow..."
Considering Obama's reputation as a great speechifier, it is ironic that so far the following seems to be the quintessential moment of his presidency:
For about four years, Barack Obama has been an omnipresent fixture in American culture. In the last month alone, he appeared on TV on Super Bowl Sunday, doing an interview with Bill O'Reilly during the pregame program, and he even made a cameo in the Oscars.
And yet on policy substance, he has been largely absent. Consider, for instance, this editorial on the Libyan crisis from the Washington Post:
[T]he State Department and the Pentagon have been adopting positions that would make intervention to change that military balance difficult, if not virtually impossible. On Monday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said an arms embargo included in the U.N. resolution meant that "it's a violation for any country to provide arms to anyone in Libya," including the rebels. On Tuesday Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that "it's very important that there be a U.N. decision on whatever might be done," including imposing a no-fly zone. She added: "There is still a lot of opposition . . . within the Security Council."
Mr. Obama, who skipped a meeting of his top aides on Libya Wednesday, may hope that the Libyan rebels will defeat the Gaddafi forces without outside help - or that other Western governments will provide the leadership that he is shunning. Meetings of NATO, the European Union and the Arab League in the next several days may produce decisions that loosen the straitjacket the administration has applied to itself. If not, the world will watch as Mr. Gaddafi continues to massacre his people, while an American president who said that he must go fails to implement any strategy for making that happen.
So, according to the Post, not only is the administration's policy sideways, the commander in chief has been passive in its formulation. This is not the first time this has happened. The Obama White House left the drafting of the stimulus mostly to Democratic leadership in Congress -- so much so that aides to House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey complained about a lack of guidance -- and the result was a bloated, inefficient bill that quickly galvanized conservative opposition and ended the "post-partisan" age. He was similarly agnostic on the health care bill, allowing Congress to come up with an incomprehensible mish-mash that still required political trickery to pass. His recent budget fails to take seriously the mounting deficit crisis, which the White House is happy to let Republicans take the politically unpopular lead on. His administration was persistently behind the curve on the revolutions in Iran and Egypt, and now it is taking a backseat to the French on Libya.
One of the better books on the American presidency remains Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power, which is still worth reading a half century after its first publication, despite the fact that Neustadt reinforces the erroneous notion that Eisenhower was asleep at the switch. His thesis is that the formal powers of the presidency -- as outlined in Article II of the Constitution -- are sparse, leaving the chief executive as little more than a clerk. What gives the presidency such potential is the informal power of the office, which comes from the abiility of the occupant to inspire awe in the public. Neustadt's book is an extended discussion of how a president should go about maximizing this informal power.
Nobody in the United States is as intent on reminding his fellow citizens just how awesome he is than Barack Obama. That's what the "Age of Obama" is all about. But that seems to be about it. The sense of awe he has cultivated has not been used for any great purpose -- not to forge a bipartisan compromise on the stimulus, not to push through an intelliglble health care plan, not to handle the deficit, not to lead on any of the various foreign policy flareups. This is more a clerkship presidency, with a commander in chief either unwilling or unable to take the lead on the most challenging issues of the day.
The conventional wisdom is that Barack Obama is going to spend a billion dollars to get himself reelected next year. So, we can expect even more pomp and circumstance than we've seen to date in the "Age of Obama," as his expert campaign strategists puff him up once again to present him as the national savior. A billion dollars, they hope, will change the public's currently low opinion of the Obama administration. Yet it cannot change one very good reason why the public has come to its opinion, which is that his has been a clerkship presidency. A glorified clerkship, no doubt, but a clerkship nonetheless.