There. I’ve said it. It strikes me as the right time to say it. A few weeks from now the Democrats will either have suffered a spectacular defeat in this year’s election, or not. Either outcome will make an indelible mark on our view of the President. Now is the last good time to take the measure of our forty-fourth Chief Executive, while still standing behind a veil of ignorance regarding the election.
President Obama is not a bad man, nor a dislikable one. I have never felt toward him any animosity, let alone the loathing that many Democrats felt toward George W. Bush. Obama isn’t stupid, to be sure; but neither has he shown any evidence of an intellect that is above average. He was President of the Harvard Law Review, and was a “Senior Lecturer” in Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School. So far as I can tell, he never published anything. If he possesses anything beyond the most shopworn views of any issue, it has gone unreported.
He is articulate enough, compared to George W. Bush. That, however, is a standard your average hot dog vendor could meet. He reads a speech pretty well with a teleprompter in front of him, but he has yet to give one that anyone will remember. On several occasions Democrats have looked to him to stand at the podium and with his great rhetorical skills turn the tide in their favor. So far the tide has been unimpressed. I haven’t seen any evidence of rhetorical skill or, more importantly, rhetorical force, that compares favorably to Bill Clinton, let alone Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy.
Barack Obama certainly had one moment of genius. In 2007 the Republican Party was badly damaged by eight years of Bush, and the Republican heir apparent was, well, really old. The Democratic heir apparent was compromised by the very thing that made her a contender: her last name. She was also, it would turn out, a very bad manager. Obama saw his opportunity and he took it.
As President, he has had one great achievement: the passage of a major health care bill. How that will turn out remains to be seen. But the President had almost nothing to do with its design beyond the role of cheerleader. In that role he has not been impressive. He told us that the healthcare reform would reduce the national health care bill and help balance the budget, that no one would have to give up their current coverage, that millions of new people would be covered. This did not inspire confidence, and the legislation the Democrats passed remains deeply unpopular.
All year long Democrats have been urging the President to get tough, to show some passion, to fight. In fact he has been fighting, all along. He has made more speeches on behalf of causes than any President I can remember. He has been very direct. If any phrase of Obama’s stands out, it would be “Let me be perfectly clear”, or “my highest priority.” It turns out, however, that the President’s highest priorities number in the dozens, if not hundreds. What he is perfectly clear about fades away faster than raindrops under a windshield wiper. The problem isn’t passion or toughness. It is that there isn’t any there there. Even Clinton had an adolescent craving for acceptance combined with the charms of a confidence man. Barack Obama has nothing.
Barack Obama has spent way too much time on campus. He has been surrounded his entire life by people who all agree with one another. Why did he sit twenty years in the pews listening to a half-demented preacher without once raising an eyebrow? Everyone in the room was shouting “amen!” Obama’s star steadily rose because he always said amen along with the crowd around him. If ever he challenged his preacher, or his congregation, or his party, it has gone unreported. If ever he stood apart from the Harvard or U of Chicago crowd and said “no”, there is no record. Why should he? The crowd kept passing him up the row. Everything in his life taught him that he could get ahead by figuring out what everyone around him wanted to hear.
Since he took up resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he has had to confront problems that cannot be solved by agreeing with somebody. Suddenly, very suddenly, he has to hold American foreign policy interests in one hand and the Iranians, who just won’t be agreeable, in the other. Suddenly, very suddenly, he has to deal with Republicans in Congress who just don’t agree with his agreeable friends on the other side. Nothing in his career prepared him for this. So he ignores the one and blames the other on Fox News.
If the President has anything in his core around which he can build an agenda, we will soon see it. Republicans are very likely to take the House and may take the Senate. In 1994 Bill Clinton “triangulated” between the new Republican majorities and his Democratic allies in Congress. His only guiding principle was to keep himself in office. Can Obama do the same after next January? It is to his credit that he doesn’t have the conman heart that Clinton had. But what does he have? Only a history of being liked. I think our President is an empty suit. We are likely to find out if I am right.