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The Character of Barack Obama

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There are times when President Obama seems to imagine himself as the moderator of a national discussion encompassing all the major issues. A similar fantasy must have been harbored by many gifted speakers, at one time or another. The odd thing about finding it in a president is that the fantasy is so completely non-political.

One of the strangest facts we know about Obama is that his colleagues and students at the University of Chicago Law School came away from discussions very impressed with his abilities, but not knowing what he thought about many issues. This was not torts or contracts. Obama's subject was Constitutional Law.

He has always had a reputation for being fair-minded -- a strength only attainable by someone who is (to begin with) minded. But the cautiousness of his first six months as president shows a pattern of accommodation that often lands him on the far side of actual prudence.

His instinct is to have all the establishments on his side: Wall Street, the military, the mainstream media; the most profitable corporations in all but the most signally failing industries; and that movable establishment (which disappears and reconstitutes itself), the quick-take pulse of popular opinion on any given issue. A president, ideally, wants all the establishments to support him, of course. You can't do without two or more at a time on your side; it is hopeless to set yourself at permanent enmity with even one. Yet to oppose the bankers on the question of bailouts, to oppose the military on drone assassinations, to exhibit non-pliability against the insurance companies and press for a public option in health care, to defy the slender majority of popular opinion that clamored for keeping Guantanamo open -- to have fought at least some of these battles need not have been hazardous for a president who came into office on a wave of revulsion against his opposite.

In dealing with some of these issues, Obama has stepped forward and then back. On some, he has not yet taken a first step away from his predecessor.

Pragmatic justifications have been offered to explain his aversion to any contest that implies a clash of opposing interests. Thus Rahm Emanuel said of the disastrously time-wasting courtship of Republican support for the stimulus package: "The public wants bipartisanship. We just have to try. We don't have to succeed." But try every time and you will waste your life. And when did the public say it wanted bipartisanship? The last fair measure was the election of 2008; and the public then gave a convincing majority to one party.

Alongside Obama's reticence sits a curiously incompatible trait, a certain grandiosity. This showed recently in his second statement about the Cambridge police. Offered a chance to concede that matters of local law were ultimately outside his province, he replied that in his view such things were "part of my portfolio." Psychologically, this may be so. But Obama is mistaken if he thinks many Americans want to see that portfolio carried into many other towns and cities. People like to think a president is too important for that. He stands at the very head of the dignified part of government (as Walter Bagehot called it). He can't at the same time enter into the efficient part of government at the level of the city police.

Doubtless a certain grandiosity is an aspect of the man. But if it is bad, all things being equal, to appear grandiose and worse to appear timid, it is the worst of all to be grandiose and then timid.

Occasionally Obama seems even better in ad lib discussions than one had expected -- with voters and reporters, and with other politicians. But he has turned out to be far less canny than he needs to be in making the sort of major speech that explains an issue from the ground up. The absence of such a speech on the economy in his first few weeks in office, and the public unease generated by that default, prompted the first of his "recovery" trips on the road, to the West Coast for several town-hall meetings and an appearance on The Tonight Show. Now, far into the discussion of health care, he has re-engaged the strategy with appearances at town hall meetings in the Midwest. These represent the second stage of closing an understanding with the public that lacked a first stage.

On July 30 the New York Times ran a story about a woman who owns a small business and has followed the president from place to place to ask him a question. Is there, she wanted to know, a single government program that has ever done anything right? (She got that knock-down challenge from talk radio.) Obama replied with two examples, Medicare and Veterans Hospitals. The business owner who had chased him down with supreme confidence in her mockery was surprised to hear those two sober examples. Nobody had told her. Then there is the citizen at another town-hall meeting who said: "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."

Several months into the president's call for health care reform, their level of ignorance is his responsibility.

His characteristic way of handling confusion in the audience is to come back and give good answers to questions. That is very well, but no substitute for an early explanation. Mopping up in question-period is an academic skill: the points you failed to clinch in lecture you recover when the hands go up. But this presumes that everyone signed up for the lectures and everyone already knows something. Here, Obama's two opposing traits, the caution and the presumption, have joined with results that are deeply unhappy. He arrogates. He does not indicate. And when the argument is well underway, he starts his major explanation as an afterthought.

Obama cherishes the ideal of a frictionless transformation of society. It is a wish for aesthetic harmony, which he mistakes for a political goal. Its attainment would be a beautiful thing. But no matter how much he appeals for comity, Obama is certain to give offense to some. Better to choose your times and targets than allow others to force that choice.

His aversion to strife was plain from his conduct in the primaries and the general-election campaign. But the degree of avoidance we have seen could never have been predicted. Obama's training, one recalls, was in the community-reform methods of Saul Alinsky; and yet he seems to have adapted the relevant ideas in foreshortened form. The Alinsky process of reform, as Jeffrey Stout has pointed out, goes from powerlessness to power in several stages. There is, first, the public recognition of powerlessness; then the airing of injustices, by legitimate polarization and active protest; then proposals of concrete reform; and only at last, power-sharing and reconciliation.

The strange thing about Obama is that he seems to suppose a community can pass directly from the sense of real injustice to a full reconciliation between the powerful and the powerless, without any of the unpleasant intervening collisions. This is a choice of emphasis that suits his temperament.

Reconciliation, however, can't be genuine or lasting without some polarization, a careful (not generalized) exposure of injustices, and a fight that feels like a fight. In the absence of these, reconciliation dwindles into a rhetorical device; it leads to short-term salvation formulae and a renewal of discontents. The same objection applies to Obama's wholly rhetorical notion that he can overcome the illegal actions of the Bush-Cheney administration by pardoning lower-echelon executors and "facing the future."

"His pragmatism is what is overwhelming him," said Obama's Chicago doctor about his approach to health care. A surprising and accurate insight. Pragmatism is supposed to trim; but taken to the circuitous lengths Obama allows, pragmatism is another word for the compulsive propitiation of unnecessary partners. It expands the work and blunts the achievement of reform. This president wants to move big, but he also wants to move slow; he wants to start a great change, but not to be the prime mover. So we get the large announcements: Guantanamo will close at once, Israel will freeze settlements, health care will be made reasonable. The president tries to line up all of his forces, all together -- and do it with so finely tuned an understanding he can't possibly be wrongly portrayed. But while he is working in the background in foreign policy, or leaving things to Congress in domestic affairs, those who are angry, Cheney, Limbaugh, Netanyahu, the big insurers, say what they please. They don't much care whether it is true. The errors "take," as errors will.

Like none of his predecessors, Obama seeks the part but disclaims the signature of a lawgiver. It may be that he mistakes politics for religion -- not less than everyone (he thinks) must share the credit for the great deed. Yet sometimes, also, he mistakes politics for physics. His larger policies have had as their premise: "Things can't go on as they have" -- as if it were a question of natural necessity. In Iraq, this was self-evident; visible reality handed him the change he stood for. Elsewhere the premise is not self-evident. And, good as Obama is in person, a resonant speaker, an impressive master of details once the details are in, he has not yet explained a single major policy in advance with the accessible clarity Paul Krugman brought to health care simply by listing its four elements: regulation, mandate, subsidy, public option. Such explanations should not have to wait for the intervention of a sympathetic columnist.

Somewhere at the bottom of the missteps of the last few months is a failure to recognize the depth of the popular ignorance a president of the United States confronts on any issue. This complacency and the tactical errors that have flowed from it might be atoned for by other qualities in a parliamentary leader, whose majority and positions come with the job. But the Democrats have yet to prove that their majority means something solid; and their positions depend on no-one so much as the president. The party, for years, wanted a leader to assure their unity; they thought Obama was the one. Yet he has made it felt in many ways since becoming president that he would be disappointed to identify himself as leader of his party.

His political fortune will now depend on his readiness to reverse that posture. To take control of his presidency, he must give up the ambition to serve as the national moderator, the pronouncer on everything, the man with the largest portfolio. If the public option in health care reform is finally defeated, Obama will not soon recover his credit as a national, a party, or a general-issue leader. To avoid that fate, he will have to grant to politics, mere politics, an importance he has not allowed it thus far.