Obama seeking a second chance

August 12, 2012


George W. Bush was not an enigma. He had no hidden parts. His father was not mysterious. George H.W. Bush’s life was dedicated to achievement and service. Even Bill Clinton wasn’t unfathomable. Nothing in his presidency — the brilliant highs, the shocking lows — was a substantial, unpredictable departure from his past.

Barack Obama, though, is the most enigmatic president since Jimmy Carter, the most mysterious since Lyndon Johnson, the most unfathomable since Franklin Roosevelt. Political professionals sometimes say of public figures that what you see is what you get, more or less. But with Obama, what you see is both more and less than what you get.

All this is on display as Obama runs for president in the same economic crisis that helped catapult him to the White House in the first place. His first term was disappointing; even he implicitly acknowledges that. He is looking to renew his vows with the American people — the 18th-century English pundit Samuel Johnson would call that the triumph of hope over experience, his classic definition of the second marriage — and he’s returned to his most comfortable role: candidate.

Abrupt change

A third of a century ago American pollsters and consultants began speaking of a “permanent campaign” — the notion originated with Carter pollster Patrick Caddell — that transformed the act of governing in the White House into an extension of campaigning for the White House.

But there was an abrupt change between Obama’s campaign, which seemed so beguiling, and Obama’s presidency, which managed to repel his allies on the left even as it consolidated, even fortified, his opposition on the right.

Obama was a silver-tongued orator in the campaign, but he lacked a silver bullet in the presidency. He was a darling on the stump, a dud in office. This is not a remarkable view. It is held in the White House itself.

Part of the reason was the hand he was dealt. No one underestimates the rot in the U.S. economy, made worse by the crisis in Europe that Obama cannot be expected to control and the competitive challenges from Asia that former Gov. Mitt Romney’s proposals also would only glancingly affect. But no one assumes the presidency without anticipating difficulty and unpredictability.

Part of the job

Bush the younger understood this, and when a White House visitor expressed sympathy for the hardship he faced after the 2001 terrorism attacks, the president said that handling such challenges was precisely why he sought the office. So it was, presumably, with Obama. He ran for president to deal with the economy, not to be burdened by it, and to change the way Washington worked, not to bemoan it.

Outside the Washington Beltway, and perhaps inside it as well, the president seems to be two men, one a brilliant practitioner of the political arts, the other a conscientious objector to politics. But politics comes in two dimensions. A skilled president must know how to get the office and then know how to use it. Failed presidents triumph in the former and stumble in the latter.

Presidents come in multiple dimensions. The political scientist and biographer James MacGregor Burns opened his classic 1970 work on FDR’s wartime presidency by observing that Roosevelt was “divided between the man of principle, of ideals, of faith, crusading for a distant vision on the one hand; and, on the other, the man of Realpolitik, of prudence, of narrow, manageable, short-run goals, intent always on protecting his power and authority in a world of shifting moods and capricious fortune.”

Operating from this kind of divided personality — and here we are obliged to acknowledge that Obama is no more complex than Roosevelt, nor does he have a rougher burden than Roosevelt, who faced a Depression that threatened capitalism and a world war that threatened democracy — FDR nonetheless came to personify a kind of political unity. He flourished in electoral politics, and he flourished as president.

The gravest warning sign in Obama’s background wasn’t his spare record in the U.S. Senate (Johnson often ridiculed John F. Kennedy for having accomplished almost nothing in the Capitol), nor his limited experience in electoral office (Lincoln had but one term in the House). Instead, the most troubling aspect of Obama’s past was the 129 abstentions in his Illinois Senate career. They suggested that Obama was more interested in getting elected than in doing the work he had been elected to perform.

Tying rhetoric to action

Few accuse President Obama of being a shirker and, in any case, no one measures long-term impact by the length of a president’s day or his attention to detail — not since Ronald Reagan (substantial success despite snoozy afternoons and evenings at TV tables watching old movies) and Jimmy Carter (little success despite grinding workdays and such a freakish attention to detail that he programmed the music in the White House and reviewed requests to use the tennis court). But the mystery about this president is why he has not been able to match his poetic style of campaigning across the country with the prosaic business of governing the country.

In 2008, when Obama was a phenomenon as much as a candidate, he sowed excitement not seen since Kennedy and promised a change in governing approach not seen since Reagan. Now he is campaigning again, this time lacing his effort with blistering critiques of Romney, many of which seem to have damaged his rival.

But the election in November is far less about Romney than it is about Obama. It is also about this stark fact: This is the first election since 1992 when an incumbent president is in the position of asking not only for a second term but also for a second chance.

— David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Abdu Omar 5 years, 5 months ago

All this rhetoric is a Republican making a campaign speech for their candidate. No, he didn't say much about Romney (there isn't much to say) but he slammed Obama the best he could. Let's look at what Obama has done and I don't know it all:

First he passed one of the most important bills of the 21st Century, the Affordable Health Care bill. Second he fought against the R's on the other side of the isle, who vowed to block every kind of bill that would make Obama look good. "Our only goal is to make Obama a one term president". Does this sound like an organization who is intent on helping the American People? Or helping their party?

How many times did Obama offer to congress a 'Jobs Bill'? Was it passed or even debated? No. Why, you ask? Because if it passed, it would solve some of the major problems of our time with a new outlook and plans to create jobs and get America working again. This would be an Obama success, and we can't have that even though we NEED that.

Obama promised that we would be out of war, well the Iraq debacle is over, shouldn't have gone there in the first place.

As I said, I don't know all the achievements Obama made, but these few are enough to start.

Armstrong 5 years, 5 months ago

The jobs bill was full of pork. Where were you hiding when all this came to light ? In the dark with the rest of the D's ?

jafs 5 years, 5 months ago

Campaigning and governing are two very different sorts of things.

That's why campaigns don't match reality when people get elected.

It's a problem, but it's not limited to Obama.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 5 months ago

We should outlaw any candidate for President from starting a sentence with "I will..." because clearly they can't. The President has a veto pen and a bully pulpit, not much else. Obama is clumsy but Romney would be worse.

shadowlady 5 years, 5 months ago

As I have said before all Obama is, is a pretty boy con man, and if you believe him, then any con man can get to you. His wife is no better, she was never proud of America until her hubby became President. What does that tell you?? About the Obama care, read the fine print, or read what is hidden.

deec 5 years, 5 months ago

To which specific fine print are you referring? What is it that you object to? Please cite the law.

Flap Doodle 5 years, 5 months ago

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." No do-overs for our affirmative action Pres.

chootspa 5 years, 5 months ago

Gee, not dog whistling at all there, Snap.

JackMcKee 5 years, 5 months ago

I still can't believe that Romney was the best the GOP could offer. Let's talk about him, shall we. If the GOP had nominated a decent candidate we'd be talking about him. Instead we get this horse manure. Day in, day out.

Liberty275 5 years, 5 months ago

Libertarians are between a rock and a hard place. You are right that they can't compete because of big money, but telling other people how to spend their money or what they can say is wrong. So they just keep losing.

A libertarian-leaning president would be nice, but we can't get there from here. You have any ideas?

JackMcKee 5 years, 5 months ago

shadow lady is talking about one of those forwarded emails that so easily target mush headed elderly republicans. I've read the email and nothing it claims is in the ACA is actually there. Just another day living in the same country with some of the dumbest people on the planet.

jaywalker 5 years, 5 months ago

Shribman is simply the best. Great piece, spot on.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 5 months ago

Obama's record owes to the fact that his natural tendency is towards pragmatism and compromise. It's readily evident in the ACA (Obamacare,) in his foreign policy and his handling of Bush's wars and in his relationship with Wall St.

But he had no willing partners in finding a "happy middle ground." He had to go there all by himself, and as with most middle ground solutions, it leaves everyone feeling less than satisfied with the results.

This is especially true in the handling of the economy. The stimulus programs were too tepid, and directed too much towards the people on Wall St. who were primarily responsible for the collapse in the first place. While they certainly did keep the recession from getting any worse, they were far from what was needed to turn the economy around.

But I think that the real-powers-that-be would like to see Obama re-elected. The Republican Party has proven to be extremely effective as an opposition party. Their obstructionist agenda has been extremely effective in maintaining the status quo, even though that keeps the economy in the doldrums-- a state of affairs that suits them just fine. Wall St. and the 0.1% are doing just fine in this recession, even if it means the continued erosion of the financial well-being of the middle and and working class. They have the Tea Party and Fox News to remind everyone that the problems in this country are all caused by gays and illegal immigrants and all the "moochers" (retirees, kids, disabled, etc.) looking for free handouts. As sleight of hand tricks go, it's a pretty clumsy one, but very effective, nonetheless

Armstrong 5 years, 5 months ago

Proof positive some people can sleep through life. Wow

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 5 months ago

You're right-- I just don't get the appeal of the Fox News koolaid.

Armstrong 5 years, 5 months ago

Or common sense, fiscal resposibility, economics, foreign policy, effects of Obamacare, job creation...........

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 5 months ago

Certainly not as seen through your petty, mean-spirited, superstition-laden filter.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 5 months ago

Well said. We speak in cartoons here do to space limitations and the issues are much too complex to fully parse here on the blogs. Essentially however, you are spot on.

Mike Ford 5 years, 5 months ago

the gop ran the country into the ground from 2000 to 2008....pass the bailouts under bush with paul ryan support.....hand President Obama the mess and say good luck.... stocks go from 6600 to 12k to 13k now three years later....gm survives....chrysler survives.....passes bank reform while those crooks find other avenues to raise fees.....have misguided people with amnesia ignore bush and go after President Obama like bush never existed and do so with racial undertones.....ride the racial undertones to the 2010 midterms....have owlface mcconnell from kentucky say his one term nonsense.....obstruct like crazy and hinder a recovery for gop political gain....and blame President Obama......under bush flunkies like michael brown were put into power to run agencies into the ground.....the gop plan....play a constituency like dunces with the failing government nonsense for the states rights crowd and have the gop flunkies run the agencies into the ground and have gop politicians defund them.....sixty five years ago the same mentality would've been in effect to strip the US Justice Department of effectiveness so that segregation in the south could stand....that's the real reason for all of this acrimony......I hear states rights....I see george wallace, orval faubus, strom thurmond, and jesse helms.....sorry some of you can't run fast enough from your true intentions.... I'll help you run....me and some history you conveiniently ignore.... like eight years of bush.......FDR couldn't ignore harding, coolidge, and hoover could he? and this country thought so much of the gop in the 1930's that it wasn't until 1952 that a gop candidate, Dwight D Eisenhower, was elected..... please blame the real crooks in this mess....hello gop......President Obama halted your Iraq haliburton cash grab.....neutralized a number of foreign enemies and unlike dubya he can talk very competently in public.....I'm enjoying putting the needle in your balloon.......now bring on the defender of the I got mine I don't care about you generation.....frankenromney and the wisconsin sniveler......smiling as he proposes to create a wall between workers and hoarders.....I saw him in There Will Be Blood Right?

Liberty275 5 years, 5 months ago

If anyone reads that, please write a short synopsis. And if it has the usual hate, edit that out.

Armstrong 5 years, 5 months ago

There's a credible source. How about a rewrite from Larry O'Donnell

pti3 5 years, 5 months ago

I hoped during the last election that Obama would try to address the dismantling of civil liberties by the Bush/Cheney Administration. Sadly this never happened.

Perhaps Romney who likely would be as bad as Obama at protecting basic civil liberties, would at least, hopefully, have Democratic opposition. Washington Post series 'Top Secret America' illustrates a secret out of control government in need of oversight and accountability.


Paul R Getto 5 years, 5 months ago

Obama has been Bush-lite. Romney would be Obama-lite.

Wiry 5 years, 5 months ago

Looking at choices available, only a total GOP/Teabgger fanatic would not vote for Obama.

pti3 5 years, 5 months ago

Both choices are bad, maybe one choice is worse. Not everyone who opposes Obama' policies are fanatic teabaggers. Such broad generalizations are misleading.

Mike Ford 5 years, 5 months ago

who let the kid in the back of the room with his hands in his ears speak? ask him to spell nuanced......put his nose in the corner.....

camper 5 years, 5 months ago

I see it as chance # 1.5 if you consider the obstructionism.

Mike Ford 5 years, 5 months ago

yeah and you sound like slade gorton.....that wonderful gorton family that took it's hate from losing the 1970's treaty wars over fishing rights from 1854 and 1855 treaties with it's wonderful fish sticks and slade gorton became an Indian hater with the Olyphant V Suquamish ruling in the Supreme Court in 1978. Just imagine....a drunk white guy can go on a rez and interrupt ceremonies and ole slade gorton can defend the actions of a drunk white guy..... false....you must be one of those crazies from east of the cascades... like that Primus "Blue Collar Tweeker" song......wonderful people.....

camper 5 years, 5 months ago

I don't like the mixture of God and politics. Isn't religion supposed to be A-political. This is the take I get from the gospel.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 5 months ago

It's pure sloganeering-- there's not a single policy statement in there. What's he gonna do? (rhetorical question-- we already know the answer, and if you ain't in the 0.1% you won't like the answer.)

Paul R Getto 5 years, 5 months ago

Which god? These folks ditched Jesus long ago.

Mike Ford 5 years, 5 months ago

all of those end of the world crazies in oregon and washington come to the northwest and speak about special rights that were actually reserved rights enumerated in treaties while the us government stole land for you....dammed rivers for you... ruined the environment for you....cut down whole forests for you...all for your historical ignorance and denial......I used to go to Portland to see family and see these people acting all haughty after only being here maybe a century or so.....the desecretion of the Klallam tze whet zen village by WADOT was done for expansionists like you false....call people names....talk crazy about dear leaders.....speak in racist code.....do you have anything meaningful to say......no......

Flap Doodle 5 years, 5 months ago

Does your spell checked not recognize "desecration", tuschie?

Mike Ford 5 years, 5 months ago

your spell check recognizes troll doesn't it?

headdoctor 5 years, 5 months ago

Funny how so many on LJW can slam Obama yet the Republican Party hasn't put together a decent party platform they could sell to the voters with a straight face in close to 30 years. Bush may have been elected for two terms but they still didn't have a real platform. I understand that they will never approve of what Obama did. At the same time they never offered up anything workable from there side. National health care didn't just pop up on the radar. The concept has been around even before Clinton. The Republicans knew it was coming but didn't put their own ideas into play. No and obstruction has been the route they chose. Either way I think Obama has done a pretty decent job considering he has met resistance every step of the way. As I have stated before. He has beat the Republicans at their own game and done what they couldn't or wouldn't do.

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