How did we get here? At the beginning of his second year, a potentially transformative and historic president finds himself a diminished figure knocked around by Republicans and trapped by his own overly grandiose goals.
The answer to the question is nine parts Obama's misreading of the America he inherited and one part his own know it all approach to his presidency. Together they created a perfect storm of elements which now drive the President's predicament.
First, urgency. Quite understandably, the President believed he has stepped on the stage at a critical moment in the nation's history. Two ongoing wars abroad combined with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression defined the nation-encumbering challenge he faces. And crisis means opportunity, or can.
In the President's mind, America's travails wasn't just about George W. Bush's mistakes; it was about fixing an America that had been broken at home and abroad for years; and doing it in a way that would restore its respect, power, economic health and long term future through reforms in health care, energy, and education. Government is about remedy; and Obama's crisis offered a chance to remedy America in the image of his views and policy preferences. Hadn't this been the reason he'd been elected?
Second, the mandate. The answer to that question was a resounding no. And herein lies the second element of the gathering storm. Barack Obama was only the second Democratic candidate since FDR to win more than 51% of the popular vote; (Of course there was the LBJ landslide in 1964; and then there was Jimmy Carter, who eked out a 50% plus victory in 1976). Obama's solid victory combined with majorities in both the House and Senate, including a filibuster-proof majority provided the President and his advisers with the conviction that they stood on the verge of a potentially transformative moment in American history; and that Barack Obama was the agent of its delivery.
There have been moments of profound political change in America -- 1800; 1932, 1964, and perhaps 1980; where presidents could remake their politics and do big things. But 2008 wasn't of them.
Most Americans didn't want a grand vision of a remade America; what they wanted was immediate relief from a mortgage and credit crisis, unemployment and great uncertainty that was dominating their lives. The link between major reform in energy, health care, education and economic recovery and growth may be compelling on paper, but it resonated not at all with a great many people who were suffering and couldn't see big government, the way the president envisioned it, as a remedy.
The fact is we've been living with big government for more than 70 years and folks might have bought it yet again (deficits too) if it were seen to be delivering for them. Many people believe in government the same way they believe in God: if it works for them, it's good. But Obama style, it didn't seem to be working (at least not yet).
Third, there's Obama himself. I like this guy a lot. He's brilliant, funny, cool and self-critical. But all of that comes with and masks an impatient, know it all quality. It hides, I suspect, beneath the cooler and more deliberative aspects of the President's persona -- the need to examine all the angles; get all the facts, and think things through. But nonetheless, I get the feeling that the President thinks he (and he alone) knows what's best and where he wants things to come out.
So here's the question. When things don't come out right (the way he wants them to) does the President adjust and learn? President Obama is steeped in history; he sees himself -- I think -- as a transformative historic figure (even now, perhaps particularly now, as adversity slams him while inspiring him to succeed even more).
And as a man of history, does he know, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed, that history teaches presidents and nations to be on guard against two conditions that can ruin them: omniscience (that they know everything) and omnipotence (that they can do everything) The time for transformation in America isn't right now; now is the time for transaction -- for deals and compromise with Republicans on practical solutions to economic and yes even health care problems. It may not be bold; but it could work.
America rarely needs a great president; we can always afford and use a good one. And for now, if President Obama can put Americans back to work, stimulate economic growth keep the country safe, and create some measure of cooperation with Republicans, he could be just that, and perhaps even more.
Aaron David Miller served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations. He is currently a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars where he is working on a new book Can America Have Another Great President? (Bantam)