Something seems off with our young president. He appears jarred. Difficult history has come over the transom. He seemed defensive and peevish with the press in his Tuesday news conference, and later with Charlie Gibson on health care, when he got nailed by a neurologist who suggested the elites who support a national program seem not to mind rationing for other people but very much mind if for themselves. All this followed the president’s first bad numbers. From Politico, on Tuesday: “Eroding confidence in President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy and ability to control spending have caused his approval ratings to wilt to their lowest level since taking office, according to a spate of recent polls.” Independents and some Republicans who once viewed him sympathetically are “becoming skeptical.”
You can say this is due to a lot of things, and it probably is, most especially the economy, which all the polls mentioned. But I think at bottom his problems come down to this: The Sentence. And the rough sense people have that he’s not seeing to it.
The Sentence comes from a story Clare Boothe Luce told about a conversation she had in 1962 in the White House with her old friend John F. Kennedy. She told him, she said, that “a great man is one sentence.” His leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don’t have to hear his name to know who’s being talked about. “He preserved the union and freed the slaves,” or, “He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.” You didn’t have to be told “Lincoln” or “FDR.”
She wondered what Kennedy’s sentence would be. She was telling him to concentrate, to know the great themes and demands of his time and focus on them.
It was good advice. History has imperatives, and sometimes they are clear. Sometimes they are met, and sometimes not. When they’re clear and met, you get quite a sentence.
And click here to order her new book, Patriotic Grace. Mr. Obama’s White House is at the moment like most new White Houses. Every administration wants to do great things. Or, rather, it wants greatness. It wants to break through on some great issue or issues and claim to be, as they used to say, consequential. There’s a busy hum of action. It can cause a blur. Everyone who works for a nation gets carried away. They’re all swept up. It’s understandable. They’re working in the White House, they’re mostly young—only the young can take the punishing hours, and only the young have lived through a limited enough history that they think everything counts and everything matters, which is how you want people in a White House to feel. In this they are like the young reporters and anchors on weekend TV. The storm comes and it’s the biggest storm ever, or the most terrible brushfire. They’re like this because it’s their first hurricane. If the sin of the young is to blow things out of proportion, the sin of the old is no longer to notice true dimension and size. It’s their 30th revolution after all, how big a deal could it be?
New White Houses are always ardent for change, for breakthroughs. They want the sentence even when they don’t know the sentence exists, even when they think it’s a paragraph. The Obama people want, “He was the president who gave all Americans health care,” and, “He lessened income inequality,” and, “He took over a failed company,” and other things. They wants a jumble of sentences and do a jumble of things. But an administration about everything is an administration about nothing.
Mr. Obama is not seeing his sentence. He’s missing it. This is the sentence history has given him: “He brought America back from economic collapse and kept us strong and secure in the age of terror.” That’s all anybody wants. It’s all that’s needed.
It is a great and worthy sentence, the kind that gives you a second term and the affectionate memory of history. If Mr. Obama earns it and makes it true of himself, he will be called good to great. But you have to meet it, you have to do it.
To get the first part of the sentence right would take a lot—restoring the confidence of the nation, getting spending down so people don’t feel a sense of horror as they look at the future, getting or keeping the dollar sound, keeping the banks up and operating. A friend says that what’s missing is an adult and responsible sense of limits, that we need to remember—we need to be reminded by our leaders—that it’s not un-American to see limits. It’s adult to see limits, it’s right and realistic.
Are we beginning the journey back to anything like fiscal health? Who thinks the answer is yes? There’s a pervasive sense that still, nine months into the crash, “we live in castles built on sand.” We’re not building on anything secure. Instead, and more and more, we have a series of presidential actions that seem less like proposals than non sequiturs. A new health-care program that Congress itself says will cost a trillion dollars over 10 years? A new energy program that will cost however many hundreds of billions in however many years? Running General Motors, and discussing where its plants should be, and what the interiors of the cars should look like, and shouldn’t the little cup holder be bigger to account for Starbucks-sized coffee? Wait, what if it’s a venti latte? One imagines the conversation in the car czar’s office: “You know, I’ve always wanted to see a mauve car because mauve is my favorite color, I mean to the extent it’s a color.”
There is a persistent sense of extraneous effort, of ambitions too big and yet too small, too off point, too base-pleading, too ideological, too unaware of the imperatives. And there is the depressing psychological effect of seeing government grow so much, so big, so fast. This encourages a sense that things are out of control and cannot be made better.
In terms of our security, we face challenges all over the world, from state and nonstate actors. Today a headline popped up on my screen: North Korea has threatened to attack us. A mordant response: Get in line, buddy. The administration, which has been appropriately modest in its face toward the world, should be more modest internally, and seek a new and serious bipartisan consensus on our defense system, our security, our civil defense, our safety. This of course is an impossible dream, but it was impossible back in the fractious ‘50s to reach a workable consensus on a strategy toward the Soviets. And yet we did it. Do we have anything like a bipartisan strategy for our age? Not nearly. We’re split in two, in three. We’ll wish someday we did. It is amazing we don’t even talk about this.
Our economy and our security are intertwined. They are at the heart of everything, even to our ultimate continuance as a nation. Mr. Obama cannot replace his sentence with 10 paragraphs, and he can’t escape it, either. Because history dictated it. History wrote it. “He brought America back from economic collapse and kept us strong and secure in the age of terror.” Sentences don’t really get better than that. He should stop looking for a better one. There isn’t a better one.