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Obama's Biggest Problem: Political ADD

The president's inability to focus on a single issue is hurting him with voters

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Why has Barack Obama—one of the most eloquent and thoughtful of recent presidents—become such a terrible politician? Midway through his sixth year in office, his ineptitude is pretty clear. He frustrated and demobilized the huge base he built during his campaigns and, unless the polls turn around quickly, will be watching from the White House as the GOP takes full control of Congress this fall. On Tuesday, the Times offered some new evidence in an article about his frosty relationship with Senate Democrats.

Obama is governing a nation full of discouraged, sometimes angry people, and he seems unable or unwilling to address their discontent in any sustained or effective way. Worse, except for those deluded souls who believe he’s a tyrannical socialist, the president has become a rather boring and insignificant figure. His response this Monday to the outrage in Ferguson, Missouri—"Let us build, not tear down. Listen, not just shout”—neither persuaded nor mollified. Keeping calm is not a political strategy.

The familiar diagnoses of his failure are not particularly convincing. Yes, Obama shuns rigid ideologies and hankers for bipartisanship, but then so do most voters. His racial identity does force him to be rhetorically cautious, lest he seem to care more about black people than other Americans. But it also helped him win the 2008 Democratic primary, and then boosted minority and young voter turnout to give him an easy victory in the general election. And if Obama is indeed as arrogant some say he is, then so were some of the more consequential chief executives who preceded him—Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan.

Each of those four presidents—as well as greater ones like Lincoln and FDR—built loyal followings and retained them for nearly their entire time in office. A major reason for their political success was that both admirers and detractors knew exactly what they stood for because they took every opportunity to explain it, whether it was Jackson’s abhorrence of financial monopoly, Lincoln’s vow to stop the spread of slavery (and then to abolish it entirely), FDR’s desire to uplift “the forgotten man,” or Reagan’s loathing for “big government.” These presidents’ critics made little headway by distorting their objectives. Most Americans refused to believe that FDR was a tyrannical leftist or Reagan a heartless bigot because they had often seen and heard each man speak, with passion and empathy, about the matters closest to his heart.

But if Obama cares deeply about anything he has accomplished or intends to accomplish, he has made no serious or sustained attempt to let us know. Instead, he typically delivers a big speech or two about a subject—whether the ACA, economic inequality, or immigration reform—and then essentially stops talking about it, even when, as with the income gap, he has public opinion on his side. No topic seems to hold his interest very long, and so he bounces around without ever persuading the American public.

Of course, the president always has a myriad of problems to address and policies he would like to enact. The great ones choose which one or two matter most, to the country and to themselves, and then make sure Americans will have no doubt about why they have made that choice and what they intend to do about it. 

In 2011, the intellectual historian James Kloppenberg wrote a widely reviewed book in which he praised Obama for being, in the philosophical sense, a brilliant and authentic pragmatist—one whose mistrust of ideological certainties would make him an effective leader. But while every sane politician needs a dose of skepticism, he or she also needs a strong sense of mission—or else their only appeal will be as a somewhat lesser evil. Instead of helping him navigate the political rapids, Obama’s sober mistrust of ideology and partisanship has left him without the ability to change the course of the nation or the thinking of its citizens in any significant way.  

Of course, the man had a lot to overcome. Obama took office with an economy tilting toward chaos and two not-so-little wars requiring urgent settlement. From the start, the opposition party has lived up to its name with a discipline Lenin would have admired. And, with the exception of the LGBT movement, no popular force on the left has mustered the resources or staying power to counter the zeal of Tea Partiers and the money of the Kochs and their ilk. Given all this, it’s remarkable that Obama achieved most of what he set out to do. In his first term—from rescuing Wall Street, to passing the ACA and financial reform, to pulling out of Iraq and drawing down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, to authorizing the risky operation that killed, in Pakistan, our Public Enemy #1. 

Yet these accomplishments seem to have won him little favor in the court of public opinion: His polling numbers are about the same as were those of his immediate predecessor at the same point in their tenure. And George W. Bush made more consistently bad decisions than any chief executive since Herbert Hoover. Future historians, I trust, will not place Obama in that benighted category. But if he truly cares about his legacy, he ought to realize, right now, that pragmatism is never enough.