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How Does Obama Measure Up?

Some nonpartisan benchmarks.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By FRED BARNES
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President Obama is under water in public opinion polls, judged more unfavorably than favorably. He now pops up in Republican campaign ads that link Democratic candidates to his unpopular administration. And a growing list of Democrats would rather he stay away while they are running for office this year.

How Does Obama Measure Up?

He’s a political liability to his party. But that may not be the best way to rate Obama’s 19-month tenure in the White House. There’s a nonpartisan, nonideological measure that’s a bit subjective but still renders a valid verdict. Created by Fred Greenstein, professor of politics emeritus at Princeton, it uses six criteria to evaluate the performance of a president.

Greenstein has applied it to presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton—that is, presidents no longer in office. But it’s also fair to use the six criteria to test how a sitting president is doing. Here are the criteria as applied to Obama.

 

PUBLIC COMMUNICATION. This was Obama’s strength as a candidate, but it’s been a glaring weakness as president. He’s a good explainer but a poor persuader. He doesn’t inspire. He devoted dozens of speeches in 2009 to touting his health care plan, including a nationally televised address to Congress last September. Public support dwindled. The program passed only because of large Democratic majorities in Congress elected in 2008 and likely to disappear in the midterm election in November.

Because presidents can always command an audience, they’re tempted to appear in public too often. Ubiquity undermines the office. The public loses interest, and the effectiveness of the bully pulpit dissolves. Every president since Ronald Reagan has succumbed to this temptation, Obama especially. The worst example: He was interviewed on TV during the halftime of the Duke-Georgetown basketball game last winter.

POLITICAL SKILL. Obama has been a smashing success in putting his stamp on policies and getting them enacted: economic stimulus, health care, financial reform. But that’s only half of what’s required of a president politically. The other half is fostering and husbanding public support—enthusiasm even—for his programs. Obama has failed at this. Rather than gain popular backing for his health care plan, its passage has spawned a movement to repeal it, led by Republicans and Tea Party activists.

A president needs to be a commanding presence in Washington. Obama hasn’t been. He farmed out the drafting of his stimulus and health care bills to Democratic leaders in Congress. The old adage about a president proposing and Congress disposing has sometimes been stood on its head during Obama’s presidency. Obama did, however, assert White House control over the financial reform bill.

VISION. Obama had a great one as a candidate. He would change the way Washington does business, end the political polarization, drive lobbyists from the public square, and create a more bipartisan, civil nation’s capital. None of that has happened. A vision can be a set of guiding principles that make a president’s policies hang together as a coherent whole. To the extent Obama has a vision, it appears to revolve around the notion that the federal government should intervene more aggressively in just about everything. Such a vision turns out to be unpopular in 2010.

ORGANIZATIONAL CAPACITY. As best one can tell, Obama has organized his administration effectively. Greenstein suggests, in his book The Presidential Difference, that a president’s success in designing “effective institutional arrangements” may not become totally clear until after he leaves office. That’s probably true in Obama’s case.

COGNITIVE STYLE. Obama definitely is a master when it comes to acquiring and sifting information and using it effectively. Obama always seems to have plenty of relevant information that he can call up. He’s impressive at trotting out details. Whether this is crucial to presidential success is another thing entirely. The most successful president in the past half-century was Reagan, whose cognitive style and ability to summon details were not among his strengths.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE. You know a president has this when you see it. It’s the ability to control one’s emotions and not let them detract from a president’s mission. Bill Clinton, for instance, had little emotional intelligence. Neither did Richard Nixon. Greenstein believes Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, and the first Bush had plenty. Obama, with his cool demeanor, isn’t in their class but he’s close. Recently, however, he’s been peevish in public—not a good sign.

The problem for Obama on these six criteria is that he does well when measured by the three less important ones—cognitive style, organizational ability, and emotional intelligence. On the big ones—communication, political skill, vision—he slips. This, better than poll results, explains why his presidency is in so much trouble.

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