All presidents take vacations, and all are criticized for it. It’s never the right place, the right time. Ronald Reagan went to the ranch, George W. Bush to Crawford, both got knocked. Bill Clinton even poll-tested a vacation site and still was criticized. But Martha’s Vineyard—elite, upscale—can’t have done President Obama any good, especially following the first lady’s foray in Spain. The general feeling this week was summed up by David Letterman: “He’ll have plenty of time for vacations when his one term is up. Plenty of time.”
The president’s position is not good. The past few months have been one long loss of ground. His numbers have dipped well below 50%. Top Democrats tell Politico the House is probably lost and the Senate is in jeopardy. “Recovery summer” is coming to look like “mission accomplished.” The president is losing the center.
And on top of that, he is still a mystery to a lot of people.
Actually, what is confounding is that he seems more a mystery to people now than he did when they elected him president.
The president is overexposed, yet on some level the picture is blurry. He’s in your face on TV, but you still don’t fully get him. People categorize him in political terms: “He’s a socialist,” “He’s a pragmatic progressive.” But beyond that disagreement, things get murky. When you think about his domestic political decisions, it’s hard to tell if he’s playing a higher game or a clueless game. Is he playing three-dimensional chess, or is he simply out of his depth?
Underscoring the unknowns is the continuing question about him and those around him: How did they read the public mood so well before the presidency and so poorly after? In his first 19 months on the job, the president has often focused on issues that were not the top priority of the American people. He was thinking about one thing—health care—when they were thinking about others—the general economy, deficits. He’s on one subject, they’re on another. He has been contradictory: I’m for the mosque, I didn’t say I’m for the mosque. He’s detached from the Gulf oil spill, he’s all about the oil spill.
All of this strikes people, understandably, as perplexing. “I don’t get what he’s doing.” Which becomes, in time, “I don’t get who he is.” In an atmosphere of such questioning they’ll consider any and all possibilities, including, apparently, that he is a Muslim. Which, according to a recent Pew poll, 18% think he is. That is up from 11% in February 2009.
Liberals and the left are indignant about this, and angry. For a week all you heard from cable anchors was “PEOPLE think OBAMA is a MUSLIM. It’s in the POLLS. How do you EXPLAIN it?” Every time I heard it, I’d think: Maybe it’s because you keep screaming it.
Some of the reason for the relatively high number of people who believe he holds to one faith when in fact he has always said he holds to another, is the steady drumbeat of the voices arrayed against Mr. Obama, that are arrayed against any modern president, and will be against the next one too. But surely some of it is that a lot of people are just trying to figure him out. In that atmosphere they’ll consider everything.
When the American people have looked at the presidents of the past few decades they could always sort of say, “I know that guy.” Bill Clinton: Southern governor. Good ol’ boy, drawlin’, flirtin’, got himself a Fulbright. “I know that guy.” George W. Bush: Texan, little rough around the edges, good family, youthful high jinks, stopped drinking, got serious. “I know that guy.” Ronald Reagan was harder to peg, but you still knew him: small-town Midwesterner, moved on and up, serious about politics, humorous, patriotic. “I know that guy.” Barack Obama? Sleek, cerebral, detached, an academic from Chicago by way of Hawaii and Indonesia. “You know what? I don’t know that guy!”
He doesn’t fit any categories. He won in 2008 by 9.5 million votes anyway because he was a break with Mr. Bush, and people assumed they’d get to know him. But his more unusual political decisions, and the sometimes contradictory and confusing nature of his leadership, haven’t ameliorated or done away with his unusualness. They’ve heightened it.
The fact that the public doesn’t fully understand or have a clear fix on the president leads to many criticisms of his leadership. One is that a leader must show and express the emotions of the people, and he’s not very good at it. But I doubt people want a president who goes around emoting, and in any case it’s not his job. What people really want, in part, is someone who understands their basic assumptions because, actually, he shares them. It’s not “Show us you care!” it’s “Be a guy I know. Be someone I get!”
The president is a person who knows how to focus and seems to have a talent for it. But again, his focus is on other things. When a president and a nation are focused together on the same things, the possibility of progress is increased. When they are focused on different things, there is more discord and tension. Mr. Obama’s supporters like to compare him with Reagan: 18 months in he had difficulties in the polls too, and a recession. But Reagan was focused on what the American people were focused on: the economy, the size and role of government, the challenge of the Soviet Union. And on the eternal No. 1 issue, the economy, Reagan had a plan that seemed to make sense, in rough terms to try to cut spending and taxes, and force out inflation. People were willing to give it a try. Mr. Obama’s plan, to a lot of people, does not make sense, or does not seem fully pertinent, or well executed.
Mr. Obama seems to be a very independent person, like someone who more or less brought himself up, a child with wandering parents, and grandparents who seem to have been highly individualistic. He is focused on what individually interests him. He relies most on his own thinking. He focused on health care, seeing the higher logic. The people focused on something else. But he’s always had faith in his ability to think it through.
Now he’s hit a roadblock, and in November’s elections he will hit another, bigger one. One wonders if he will come to reconsider his heavy reliance on his own thoughts. His predecessor did not brag about his résumé and teased himself about his lack of giant intellect, but he had utmost faith in his gut. By 2006, when he had realized he had reason to doubt even that, he flailed. The presidency has a way of winnowing you down.
The great question is what happens after November. The hope of the White House, which knows it is about to take a drubbing, is probably this: that the Republicans in Congress will devolve into a freak show, overplay their hand, lose their focus, be a little too colorful. If that meme emerges—and the media will be looking for it—the Republicans may wind up giving the president the positive definition he lacks. They could save him. The White House must be hoping that a year from now, people will start looking at the president and saying “Hey, I do know that guy. He’s the moderate.”