Much the way Hurricane Katrina became the beginning of the end of the Bush Presidency, I suspect this past week marks the start of a shift in the national mood about President Obama. Between the fiasco of Veterans Affairs and the disastrous handling of Bowe Bergdahl, what was left of the President's elan - a sense that, even in the tough moments, he could calmly reassure at least his supporters of his own groundedness - seemed pretty much gone.
It's been a tough thing, trying to get a read on this Presidency, provide a kind of critical, but balanced evaluation through a minefield of personal popularity and cultural expectations. From the beginning, support for Barack Obama wasn't just about politics, it was a cause, for some nearly a belief system. Part of the intensity came, obviously, from the newly energized young people he brought into the process. Less obviously, it was an older generation of liberals who found their own idealism rekindled in the image of electing a black man President.
I've never been entirely on board for that idealistic rush; it's lovely to think our national history can be solved with symbolic achievements, but reality is messier and more difficult and we're picking a government, not a symbol. "Hope and Change" really was never the issue. From the beginning, this Presidency has been ill defined, as a practical matter, in clearly stated, practical goals, and understanding the day-to-day process of the unglamorous business of simply making government work.
We forget that the "Stimulus Bill" which was hailed as the first achievement wasn't a particularly fresh or new idea - discussion of such a package was already underway, and the process was largely driven by the newly resurgent Democrats taking over in Congress, joined by a President of the same party. It's also easy to forget that the process of developing "Obamacare" had not been the signature plan of the President; its creation, too, was overtaken by Congressional forces who had long hoped to develop a national plan. It's not to downplay the significance of these accomplishments; but context matters. And from the start, this has been a Presidency challenged to take lofty, ambitious rhetoric, and translate it into the practical, achievable results of how we actually make government work.
Nowhere has that disconnect been more apparent than in the unwinding of the economic mess that led to the near collapse of our financial system, and the steps taken to try and correct it. The actions of Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke are - despite Geithner's attempt to, yet again, dismiss all critics - nowhere near settled as the best or generally correct course of action. Poverty remains at near record levels. More people on food stamps than ever before. Levels of economic inequality not seen since the thirties. These are not the successful accomplishments of a strong economic policy. In part, President Obama has always talked around these issues by governing in the future tense - where we are is not where we will be, and if we talk enough about how good it will be eventually, then now may seem not so bad. In part, Mr. Obama simply ran out of future to promise. The future, at some point, is now.
It's easy - too easy, really - to lay the challenges and failures of the Obama Presidency on the heightened level of partisanship, the polarization of left from right and an especially dysfunctional Congress in recent yers. It's worth remembering that the initial period of this Presidency, with Congressional majorities in both houses, was only marginally more successful in achieving consensus or demonstrable results - and arguably, Nancy Pelosi's leadership of the House was every bit as polarized and single party as Boehner's has been since. If anything, the story of the Obama Presidency and its challenges in governance are all about the battles of the House of Representatives. Until that House finds comity and an approach to governing that's bipartisan, arguably, we remain sunk.
But this is a President who has done little to bridge those divides, who promised much in the way of finding a way to forge new bonds, but arguably added to the distance. There may be little common ground, maybe none. But it can't help to say in one breath that you want "consensus," in the next call out one side as the problem to finding it, and in the third argue that partisan resistance is the only solution. Time and again, this is a President whose rhetoric starts out lofty and unifying, only to sink into finger pointing and partisan sniping. And yes, that's what his loyalists want and lefties expect. Still, this is a Presidency that proves that you really can't have it all ways at once. In the end, President Obama has been the bulwark on which Democrats have hardened their partisan edges. That's a great political success; it's been a less than effective approach to actually governing.
In the end, this has been a Presidency of loyalists and insularity, too likely to believe their own press and too convinced of the rightness of their every good intention. In 2010, and again in 2012, this is a President who spoke publicly about doing soul searching and making "changes" to his governing approach; at best, every change was cosmetic and temporary, and made no alteration to the fundamental architecture of his Administration. It's a very top down, male dominated approach that's been, in its way, a quiet, undiscussed embarrassment to many true believers. The President has been slow to remove poor performers, tetchy when challenged, and reluctant to admit mistakes. And that's well before delving into that "best and brightest" quality of elitism that has been especially egregious in picking only top drawer, Ivy League types to join him at the top.
If anything, this Presidency has been an illustration of the mediocrity in excessive meritocracy, where the names and prestige matter more than the result. That's the real underlying dismay of self proclaimed "progressives" looking for some real action on key liberal points. These are the educated, successful professionals who should "get it"; they say as much, but somehow, it never happens. And it doesn't, I'd argue, because this educated professional elite has always been liberal in theory, but less so on the level of practical detail and execution; upper middle class liberalism has never been that far - physically or emotionally - from the classic Country Club Republican. It's mainly "let's read about a social problem, and pay someone to go there and fix it." And that really only works well when you know how to manage people and inspire them to do their best. And that, really, seemed like something the President might be able to do. But he hasn't.
He's not the worst President, by any stretch; if anything, President Obama has surely outperformed the disastrous example of the man who preceded him. But that's not really the point. The point is that this President didn't promise "adequate," he promised the moon and the stars, hopefulness on a grand scale untethered from practical concerns. It was always a doomed equation - literally overpromising and surely aimed to under deliver. He is, as I think he always could have been, an okay President, good at times, not really great. And we gave him a good 6 years to figure out how to both right size the expectations and deliver at least in some modest way, on our lowered expectations. It's not complete failure, but at this point, all but the most devoted are really going to keep looking to him for solutions. At this point, I think, we have decided it's time to start looking at what comes next (and how conveniently timed, you say, to Mrs. Clinton's book tour, right?). We are after all, much better about designing our future than confronting our past.