July 26, 2010


"Why Has He Fallen Short?": a review of The Promise: President Obama, Year One by Jonathan Alter (Frank Rich, 8/19/10, NY Review of Books)

There is nothing in these pages to contradict the idea that Obama is the smartest guy in every room, hard as he works to avoid advertising that fact. He is in on the joke of his own outlandish success and the almost absurd run of good luck that has helped fuel it. He never ceases to remark how unlikely it is that a man named Barack Hussein Obama, the black grandson of Kenyan goatherds, “could run against the most potent political machine in a generation and become president of the United States.” As Alter observes, FDR may have been a second-class intellect with a first-rate temperament, in the famous judgment of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., but Obama “came to office with both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament.”

To which one might respond: If he’s so smart, and so sane, why has he fallen short of his spectacular potential so far? That shortfall is most conspicuously measured by his escalation of a war held hostage by the mercurial and corrupt Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai; a woefully inadequate record on job creation; and the widespread conviction that the White House tilts toward Wall Street over those who have suffered most in the Great Recession. Alter doesn’t soft-peddle these criticisms. “Even by late 2009, when every major bank except Citigroup had paid back its TARP money,” he writes, “the impression of a colossal injustice remained—that fabulously wealthy bankers would be made whole, but ordinary Americans would not.”

Among those critics who are fundamentally sympathetic to Obama, explanations for his disappointing performance abound. To many, he is not and never really was a progressive, only a cautious pragmatist who pandered to primary voters in 2008 by speaking in broad liberal bromides and reminding them incessantly that he had been to the left of Hillary on Iraq. Many see him as far too wedded to a naive and platonic ideal of bipartisanship that amounts to unilateral political disarmament when confronting an opposition party as nihilistic and cynical as the current GOP. He lacks a fierceness in battle that, as William Pfaff and Robert Reich have suggested, might have driven him to exercise federal authority over BP at the start of the oil spill, much as an angered Truman did when he seized the steel industry to end the crippling strike of 1952. (Truman’s executive action was ruled unconstitutional in the absence of a law authorizing it, but Reich has argued that present law, including the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, would allow BP to be placed in temporary receivership as AIG and General Motors were last year.) Obama is also faulted by disappointed fans for his surprisingly subpar political skills. The master orator who left millions of Americans fired up and ready to go during election season has often come off as aloof once in office, and has proven a surprisingly prolix and lackluster salesman for his own policies.

There is some validity to all these diagnoses. The falloff in messaging prowess is particularly perplexing. Alter attributes some of it to the success of Obama’s speech on race during the Jeremiah Wright firestorm of the campaign. Because that comprehensive and nuanced address was “a hit without sound bites,” Obama felt that his congenital distaste for glib verbal formulas had been vindicated. But as Alter notes, his “diffidence toward cogency was ahistorical.” Sound bites like “a house divided against itself cannot stand” or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” are hardly without their virtues. “Without them,” Alter writes, Obama’s speeches often amounted to “fast food that left you hungry again soon after the meal.”

The White House’s sporadic attempts to dress up its marketing with catchphrases—”New Foundation” as an umbrella description for Obama’s domestic programs, for instance—have been too bland and scattershot to gain traction. They are certainly no match for a focused, Fox-perfected Republican message that conjures up vivid bogeymen like “government takeovers,” “out-of-control spending,” and “death panels.” That the GOP, which perennially pushes for the castration of Medicare, could present itself as Medicare’s valiant defender during last year’s health care wars was a particularly telling feat. Obama had a lot of trouble formulating his own health care message in accessible language—”It was like he was trying to find the combination on a lock,” said his close friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett—and so the opposition could fill the White House’s vacuum with any outrageous bumper-sticker message it could whip up.

Not only can we rest assured that he's smarter than Vizzini but the proof is that he can't dumb himself down to the level of the American people.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 26, 2010 2:05 PM
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