Barack Obama was elected in part because of his singularity. There was no one like him. He was a break with the past, not only because of his youth and race but also his cerebral bent, his cool demeanor. He seemed free of the partisan muck. He was hard to categorize because we didn’t have categories for him. This was part of his power. It denied his foes purchase; they didn’t know how to get at him. It allowed others to project on his canvas. After the thickly drawn George W. Bush, he seemed something refreshing: a mystery.
He has been criticized in the past for not being philosophically clear, but Mr. Obama possesses the canny knowledge that in modern politics, clarity can sometimes get in your way. You don’t always want to shoot arrows that pierce; sometimes it’s better to be a great enveloping fog, something your enemies get lost in.
The big thing that has happened the past few weeks is that he’s become more sharply defined. Actions and decisions clarify, and he’s been quite the decider.
In foreign affairs he has shown the impulses of a moderate: watching (Iran), waiting (Iraq), beefing up (Afghanistan), standing down (the nomination of Charles Freeman as National Intelligence Council chairman, which brought more drama than he wanted). His attitude at this week’s summit was one of welcome modesty, which might or might not have tipped into a mea culpa (he agreed that America bears great responsibility for the world economic meltdown, and that some previous U.S. foreign policy attitudes have been poor). Or perhaps that’s a you-a culpa.
In any case, his freshness and persona probably contributed to the fact that the predictable riots, while anticapitalist and antiglobalist, were not in their focus anti-American. This was a welcome relief. It won’t last forever, and let’s enjoy it while we can. Michelle Obama enjoyed a well-deserved triumph, representing her country with grace and elegance. She continued to signal a secret conservatism by demonstrating support for the right to bare arms. I very much wish that were my joke and not that of the editor Jason Epstein.
In domestic affairs, however, in the economy, Mr. Obama’s actions since February have left him not so much more deeply defined as tagged. They can arguably be understood not as a conglomeration of moderate impulses but an expression of a kind of grandiosity. He thinks big! His plans are all-encompassing! There is so much busyness, and so much spending, that journalists have been in an unofficial race to keep track of the flurry of numbers. From Bloomberg News this week: “The U.S. government and the Federal Reserve have spent or lent or committed $12.8 trillion” in new pledges. This they note is almost the value of everything the United States produced last year. The price tag comes to $42,105 for every man, woman and child in the U.S.
I happened to be rereading the economics section of Mr. Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” when I read the Bloomberg story. He scores President Bush for contributing to a national debt that amounted to a $30,000 bill for each American. Those were the days!
The tagging was done, definitively, by an increasingly impressive (because unusually serious and sincere) member of the U.S. Senate, who happens also to be Mr. Obama’s friend. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, has been close with the Illinois Democrat since their Senate orientation in 2004; he’s the man the president hugged after his big joint sessions speech last month. Thursday, in a column on RealClearPolitics.com, Mr. Coburn wrote, “I believe President Obama has proposed the most significant shift toward collectivism and away from capitalism in the history of our republic. I believe his budget aspires to not merely promote economic recovery but to lay the groundwork for sweeping expansions of government authority in areas like health care, energy and even daily commerce. If handled poorly, I’m concerned this budget could turn our government into the world’s largest health care provider, mortgage bank or car dealership, among other things.”
To be defined in this way is not just a negative for Mr. Obama in terms of its criticism, it amounts to being robbed, by a friend, of the vagueness that was part of his power. Mr. Coburn was all the more deadly for being fair-minded: he was tough on both parties as operating in a crisis from “scripts,” with Democrats saying everything is Bush’s fault and Republicans decrying high spending and taxing while failing to abjure earmarks and admit what must be cut.
The great long-term question about Mr. Obama’s economic program, the great political question, is: Is this what the people want? There are economists who believe, and who make a reasonable case, that more money is needed to get the credit system, now frozen like icebergs, flowing in warm streams again. But in terms of leaps in the size of government, including a new health-care system, and higher deficits, and increased borrowing, and debt—in terms of the sheer scope and size of what is being planned—one simply wonders: Is this what the people want?
Different pollsters offer different data. The Washington Post this week put the president’s approval ratings at 60% or higher; the Washington Times had a Zogby poll saying Mr. Obama’s popularity has dipped below 50%; in this paper, the pollsters Douglas Schoen and Scott Rasmussen said the American people “are coming to express increasingly significant doubts about his initiatives,” and placed the president’s approval rating at 56%, “with substantial polarization.”
That last qualification certainly sounds true. So does the assertion that there’s a gulf between the president’s popularity and the popularity of his programs. Messrs. Schoen and Rasmussen had 83% of respondents saying his programs will not work, 82% saying they’re worried about the deficit, 78% worried about inflation, and 69% worried about the increasing role of the government in the economy.
This is a hard time to be president. The questions and issues that arise, their depth, complexity and implications, amount to an almost daily parade of horribles. There is considerable goodwill for the president, and all the polls show considerable support—half the nation in a time of sustained crisis is not a small thing—but one wonders for the first time if Mr. Obama’s support isn’t becoming, in the old phrase, a mile wide and an inch deep. Something has been lost in terms of fervor when one talks to Obama supporters. There is little of the spirit that led FDR’s supporters, for instance, in another great economic crisis, to put signs in their front windows supporting the National Recovery Act. We were a younger country then, and the two crises are not completely comparable, but there’s a lot of wait-and-see out there. There’s also a growing divide observable between the American establishment—of both parties—and the rank and file of Americans living normal, non-politically-obsessed lives. The latter seem more patient, more forgiving toward the president. The former, the establishment—again, in both parties—now commonly voice grave doubts as to his domestic ambitions.
Mr. Obama had a strong closing news conference in Europe, and it looks to have been a successful trip, marked at the end by an air of relative and surprising G-20 unity. The president will get some bounce from it, as they say, and it may be considerable. But then the Europe trip speaks of the part of his administration, foreign affairs, that is marked by an air of moderation, not the part involving ambitions that are grand to the point of grandiosity.