The Magazine

The Trouble with Obama

He only seemed to be all things to all people.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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For a talented man who ran a textbook campaign and was declared a great president before he even took office, Barack Obama has been having a rather hard time. The Midas Touch of 2008 has seemed to desert him. The famed oratory has not made a difference. The uniting president has turned into the ultra-divider. The music has died.

It's less that McCain voters oppose his proposals than that his own voters are turning against him: His approval ratings, above 70 percent when he first took office, now are near or less than 50 percent as independents, who gave him his win last November, give him negative ratings, and are dropping away. Presidents tend to drift down to earth as good will is ground down in the process of governing, but Obama's decline has been sudden and swift. Democrats predictably blame this on race, as if the strain of feigning enlightenment had become too much all at once for millions of people, but this seems unlikely in the case of a figure who only a few months ago was so widely adored.

In fact, he may have been adored rather too widely, by too many people wanting incompatible things. As disillusion sets in, it becomes more and more clear that he and his country misread one another. People embraced him for opposite reasons, while he held mistaken ideas about them; lies were not told, but conclusions were drawn that were not wholly accurate. He is what he seemed, only not that completely. And here are just five of the ways.

I. THE INSULAR INTERNATIONALIST.

On the surface, Obama is a man of the world and of varied experience, who has had an existence of contrasts, and seen many aspects of life. He has seen life in Hawaii, Jakarta, and mainland America, life in Cambridge, Manhattan, Chicago, and Washington; he has genetic connections to Kansas and Kenya; he knows the life of the privileged (the political elite and the academic community), the life of the in-between (his childhood family), and the life of the poor (on the South Side of Chicago, where he held his first job). Few American politicians have ever had a geographical reach so diverse and so dazzling--or a political planet so narrow and small.

Obama has spent his entire adult life confined in the bubble of deep blue America--a place that makes up less than one-fifth of the country--in blue states, in blue cities, in blue states of mind. His city neighborhoods--Morningside Heights, Hyde Park, and Cambridge--are the back yards of elite universities; he worked in the ghetto (and met its denizens again in Jeremiah Wright's congregation); and he rose in the urban ethnic machine of Chicago: the perfect trifecta of liberal politics, where people's looks, speech, and dress may seem to be varied, but the voting and thinking go only one way. It is a real world, but a small one, and in a real sense misleading; one that sees suburbs and small towns as strange, foreign countries; where centrists are rare, and the right nonexistent; where Bill Ayers really is just a guy from the neighborhood (and the Reverend Wright is nothing unusual), and where no one and no party disputes that the state is the answer, that "social justice" demands redistribution, that less wealthy whites cling to God and to guns out of "bitterness," and that racist white cops (all white cops are racist) always act "stupidly" when they are forced to have dealings with blacks.

Obama knows people who make laws, and people who teach law, and people who depend upon help from the government, but few people who make things, or run things, or work in the market economy; in other words, he doesn't know his own country, and has no sense where its center of gravity lies. He seems surprised at the resistance to his agenda: Who knew there were so many millions who are staggered by deficits, who don't see the point of identity politics, and want the state largely out of their lives? Not he, and he still doesn't seem to believe it, viewing the fringe (the far left) as the majority, and the center-right that is the core of the country as a demented fringe element that can be dismissed, condescended to, or shoved off to one side. A man of the world, but not of his country, he is just sensing the depth of his own lack of knowledge. He doesn't seem eager to learn.

II. TOO MUCH, TOO SOON

As the biracial son of an absentee father, his life less than smooth in its formative stages, Obama was sold as a much-vetted figure, matured by the pressures of life. Once again, this is true, but in some ways, it isn't: His struggles were real, but were not overwhelming, and compared with others', his sufferings seem slight.