Two relatively accurate barometers of the public’s temperature on Barack Obama’s presidency can be found in the upcoming New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections. Both are states where the president won handily in November 2008. In fact, Obama was the first Democrat since Lyndon Baines Johnson to win the state of Virginia. Both states have Democratic incumbents and both face the very real prospect of falling into the hands of Republican challengers on Nov. 3rd.
The basis for Obama’s success has always been grounded more in symbolism than in substance. The net result is that a candidate once heralded as transformational now appears decidedly mortal. Much of the so-called “change” Obama had the luxury of promising as a candidate has been undermined by the uncompromising reality of policymaking. And in the eyes of an increasing number of observers, Obama has yet to make the transition from candidate to the nation’s chief executive.
The ferocious debate over health care – President Obama’s signature domestic policy initiative – is sucking much of the oxygen out of the discussion over his overall performance. There are, however, other important areas that deserve evaluation. While it’s logical to appraise them separately, they constitute parts of an interconnected agenda that gives a fuller picture of how Obama has performed to date:
Economy and Taxes
As a candidate, Obama promised “fundamental change” in a bid to “remake” America. As president, his attempts to re-inflate a recession-ravaged economy have been marked by near-endless controversies of his own doing and questionable results. The public has heard ad nauseum that he inherited a mess from the presidency of George W. Bush. That’s fair enough, but surely the president knew what he was getting into. He convinced voters that even if he didn’t have all the answers, he was capable of coming up with them. However, Obama’s economic policies have been characterized by a vast expansion in the cost and scope of government, higher unemployment, and a less competitive economy that threatens to leave the country in severe poverty.
For a man who elevated political oratory to an art form, Obama has demonstrated a distinct lack of tolerance for dissent. The president increasingly embroils himself in partisan battles over honest policy disagreements. On numerous fronts – and with numerous high profile combatants such as Fox News, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and health insurers – the president is falling far short of the conciliatory tone he promised as a candidate. Instead, Obama often seems more eager to engage some of the world’s most obnoxious authoritarians than he is to find common ground with domestic opponents, often resorting to a dismaying penchant to use the presidential bully pulpit in undignified attempts to marginalize and bully critics.
Defense and National Security
However well-intentioned, Obama’s foreign policy is riddled with simplistic assumptions and endless contradictions. The condescending Nobel Prize awarded to the president reinforces the idea that Obama’s global popularity is derived simply from the fact that he’s not George W. Bush. Continental Europe adores Obama, yet steadfastly refuses to commit more troops to a “just war” in Afghanistan that the president has made a central focus of his foreign policy. As a candidate, Obama vowed to prosecute a vigorous response to growing violence in Afghanistan; as president, he initially mooted a grand strategy that would increase troop levels, but pressure from the left wing of his party has paralyzed his decision-making on the issue.
Obama’s election was a justifiable source of pride for the African-Americans and a country as a whole: even conservatives were heartened by the prospect of exorcising the demons of America’s racial strife. Since then, the president’s defenders have cynically attributed all criticism of the president to racism – in the process undermining prospects for genuine racial reconciliation.
A year after riding a wave of popular discontent and a near-enchanted candidacy to reach the White House, the mystique of Barack Obama appears to have dissipated markedly. In many ways, Obama was the victim of wildly unrealistic expectations associated with his ability to solve intractable domestic and international problems.
Even still, the excitement of a heady campaign has now given way to the practical and difficult challenges of governance. It remains to be seen whether the president is completely up to the challenge.