As President Barack Obama heads into the final half of his final term, many of us Americans wonder whatever happened to the fresh promise of that cheerfully charismatic optimist who dominated the political stage back in 2008.
Some of those who voted for him now say they’re sorry they did. A poll by USA Today/Suffolk University finds, among those who say they did vote for him in six states that have key Senate races this fall, as many as 1 in 7 say they regret it.
Of course, it also is significant to note that some of those folks are liberals who think Obama has been too conservative. I am thinking, for example, of Cornel West, the celebrity activist-intellectual who told Time magazine he didn’t vote for anybody in the 2012 presidential election. To me, that was essentially a vote for Mitt Romney, but I don’t expect Professor West to brag about that.
Obama’s slump isn’t all that special. Every two-term president in recent decades has suffered a dip in approval halfway through his second term. But Obama’s slide is startling for a man who, only two years ago, became the first Democrat since FDR to win a majority of the popular vote in two elections.
That’s why you won’t see him campaigning alongside Democratic candidates in close Senate races. They’re delighted to receive the money he helps to raise but they don’t want to be seen with him.
Why has the thrill gone? I can think of three big reasons:
One: Public impatience. After six years in office, any president has been seen and heard too many times to satisfy the public’s relentless appetite for something fresh and new.
“We claim that a president is tired or looks tired,” wrote presidential scholar James Mann in a recent New York Times op-ed, “when what we really mean is that we are tired of him.”
Two: An anti-incumbent reflex in news media. The most powerful media bias, I often have argued, is our bias against any political narrative that sounds like old news. Our current president looks less exciting than the menagerie of wannabes on the horizon.
Three: Obama’s own distaste for the politicking that is an inevitable and, in many ways, essential part of presidential leadership.
Leon Panetta, a former defense secretary and CIA director under Obama, added fuel to this long-running narrative in recent interviews to promote his new memoir.
“I think the difference is that [President] Bill Clinton [for whom Panetta also worked] likes politics, likes the engagement in politics,” Panetta told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. “Barack Obama does not like that process of engaging in politics, and I think that hurts his presidency. It hurts him in terms of getting things done.”
Yet as a fair historical accounting will show, Obama did get some things done. He reversed the recession with a stimulus that injected billions into the economy. Recovery has been sluggish and low-wage workers have not benefited as much as upper-income earners. But unemployment is down, so is the deficit, and the stock market, for all of its bounces, has hit record highs.
The president’s health care plan still suffers in the polls, but not enough for Republicans to carry through with their plans to make attacks on “Obamacare” a central theme of their midterm campaigns.
As for social issues, the Obama era has reversed the conservative culture wars, particularly in women’s rights, same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, among other issues.
Yet there’s little doubt that he could have done more had he engaged his relentless opposition more effectively early on. He still has two years. He still faces such weighty issues as immigration, Ebola, the Islamic State, Iran nuclear talks, new trade agreements, federal budget disputes and who-knows-what crises that we have not even imagined yet.
Gary Younge, at Britain’s liberal newspaper The Guardian, observed that Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes we can,” seems to have become, “At least he tried.” The next two years offer him a big opportunity to try harder.
Email Clarence Page at [email protected].
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