Though there are two years left in his term, many commentators have already concluded Barack Obama has been a failure as president of the United States. Not all the conclusions are from the Fox News quarter, either – for every critic who has always denounced Obama as a Muslim African socialist terrorist whatever, there are others who once had higher expectations of him and who genuinely believed his ascendance in 2008 promised a new politics in America and a new direction for the world. Their disappointment tells us more about what’s become of the office itself than what happened to the man who currently occupies it.
Obama may have saved the US from a deep economic depression, but the nation’s recovery has been uneven; Obama did not usher in a “post-racial” American culture, as the unrest in Ferguson Missouri has demonstrated; his environmental goals have been put off; the US Congress is less productive and more polarized than ever; and internationally, Obama has appeared weak or vacillating over Syria and the Ukraine, while carrying on the dubious antiterrorism efforts (electronic surveillance, drone warfare) of his predecessor. Obama remains far too liberal for his enemies on the right, and he has proven far too conservative for his erstwhile boosters on the left. Some guys just can’t please anyone.
Back in 2008, there were warnings of how Obama might fare as president, but they came from political rivals and were therefore downplayed. Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin compared her previous job to Obama’s – a governor’s work is much like a community organizer’s, she quipped, “except you have actual responsibilities.” And another ex-VP hopeful, Geraldine Ferraro (herself a Hillary Clinton supporter), drew fire for saying that if Obama wasn’t black, he’d be taken far less seriously. Obama’s inexperience as an arm-twisting, deal-making politician and the distracting novelty of a “presidential” African-American campaigner have indeed emerged has his key vulnerabilities. He made a better symbol of change than a genuine agent of it.
It isn’t that Obama’s transformative agenda has been blunted by the Koch brothers or the military-industrial complex, though apologists will argue exactly that. The US presidency is now a position of mythic stature but limited power: just getting there is the ultimate prize of ambitious Americans, more than doing anything in particular upon arrival. Thus Obama’s original supporters seemed more stirred by the prospect of a man of his color and background successfully running for office, than by whatever policies he might subsequently put in place. As well, Obama’s skills as an orator have turned out to be far more inspiring than his abilities as an administrator. Sometimes – on Trayvon Martin, on the Boston bombing, on the Arab spring – he has sounded more like an eloquent activist, commenting on events as a utopian outsider, rather than someone with authority to himself take concrete actions. In 1988 the Democratic presidential candidate, former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, claimed he offered “a record, not a résumé,” over his rival George H. W. Bush; Bush won, of course, but Obama too might have been subject to the same distinction. Obama had an excellent résumé. Ideally, perhaps, the chief executives of democracies should be people for whom the job is a step down in importance or clout (Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, say), rather than the pinnacle of a lifelong aspiration. Even if that aspiration was shared by millions of people.