Given the election results, the question Barack Obama has to decide for himself is whether he really wants to be president in the fullest sense. Not a moderator for earnest policy discussions. Not the national cheerleader for hope. Not the worthy visionary describing a distant future. Those qualities are elements in any successful presidency, and Obama applies them with admirable skill and seriousness.
What’s missing with this president is power—a strong grasp of the powers he possesses and the willingness to govern the country with them. During the past two years, this missing quality has been consistently obvious in his rhetoric and substantive policy positions. There is a cloying Boy Scout quality in his style of leadership—the troop leader urging boys to work together on their merit badges—and none of the pigheaded stubbornness of his "I am the decider" predecessor, nor the hard steel of Lyndon Johnson or the guile of Richard Nixon.
Obama has patience and the self-confidence not to insist that his solution is the best and only one. On many vital questions, he went so far as to not even say what his solution was. Such a governing style is too nice for real-life politics, where Boy Scouts get their heads handed to them.
Some politicians may enjoy Obama’s generous spirit, but many despise him for it. Washington always takes the measure of a new president and tests him early on. Congress and the surrounding power centers, swiftly reading weakness in this president, decided they would fill the vacuum Obama left for them.
A friend and longtime warrior for liberal reforms described what unfolded in harsh but accurate terms: "First he was rolled by the bankers, then he was rolled by the generals, then he was rolled by the Blue Dogs and other Democrats who had no interest in going along with what he proposed." Obama seemed exceedingly tolerant of resisting forces and even cooperated with them. Or maybe he privately agreed with them. He never made it clear.
Perhaps because he was young and relatively inexperienced, Obama surrounded himself with savvy veterans of Washington’s inside baseball. He inherited his economic advisers from Robert Rubin, his political team from former Senate leader Tom Daschle and center-right Clintonistas like Rahm Emanuel. Together with old friends from the academy, the administration was overstaffed with intellectual abstraction and short on street-smart politicians, especially any harboring liberal instincts. That pretty much ruled out the "change" many voters had expected. It produced a tone-deaf seminar of policy thinkers in which Obama assumed he was hearing all sides.
Republicans, who are masters of deceptive marketing, seized on Obama’s most appealing qualities and turned them upside down. Their propaganda cast him not as soft but as a power-mad (black) leftist, destroying democracy with socialist schemes. The portrait was so ludicrous and mendacious, the president’s party hardly bothered to respond. Egged on by the Republican Party and Fox News, right-wing frothers conjured sicko fantasies and extreme accusations: the president is not only a black man (bad enough for the party of the white South); he is not even American. The vindictive GOP strategy is racial McCarthyism, demonizing this honorable man as an alien threat, just as cold war Republicans depicted left-liberal Democrats as commie sympathizers.
Even Obama supporters began to ask, Where is the fight in the man? Some critics blame a lack of courage, but that neglects the extraordinary nerve Obama displayed in his rise to the White House—a young black man with an unusual name and limited experience who triumphed through his audacity. Obama’s governing style is a function of his biography—a man who grew up always in the middle, both black and white. He succeeded by learning rare skills, the ability to bridge different worlds comfortably and draw people together across racial, political and intellectual divides. He learned to charm and disarm, not to smash and conquer.
For the first time in his life, those qualities seem to have failed him. Indeed, he may have been misled by his high regard for his own talents. This is really his first encounter with devastating political defeat. The question now is, What will he learn from his "shellacking"? Possibly not much, since it is always very hard to rethink and adjust in midstream. But remember, this man is an unusually observant politician with a great thirst for self-reflection. One can reasonably hope that as he absorbs the hard knocks, he will make calculated changes in how he governs.
Bluntly put, Obama needs to learn hardball. People saw this in him when he fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and many of us yearn to see more. If he absorbs the lesson of power, he will accept that sometimes in politics you can’t split the difference or round off sharp edges. He has to push back aggressively and stand his ground, more like those ruthless opponents trying to bury him. If Congress won’t act, the president will. But first he has to switch from cheerleading to honest talk. Tell people what the nation really needs, what Republicans intend to sabotage. In a political street fight, you’ve got to hit back.
Only Obama can decide this about himself, but others can influence the outcome by surrounding him with tough love and new circumstances created by their own direct actions. It does not help Obama to keep telling him he did great but the people misunderstood him. He did lousy, not great, and in many governing dimensions people understood his failures clearly enough. They knew he gave tons of money to bankers and demanded nothing in return. They knew he thought the economy was in recovery. They couldn’t believe this intelligent man was that clueless.
Popular forces can blow away the fuzziness. They can mobilize to demonstrate visible support for the president’s loftier goals and to warn him off the temptation to pursue a Clintonesque appeasement of the right. Given the fragile status of his presidency, Obama needs to know that caving in is sure to encourage enemies and drive off disheartened supporters. People should, likewise, call out the president’s enemies and attack them with the harshness that’s out of character for him. The racial McCarthyism of the GOP establishment is a good place to start.
People who still have great hope for Obama can help revive his presidency, but only if they toughen up themselves. Stop holding his hand (he’s an adult) and start building a people’s agenda that compels the president to change his. Obama won’t like this at first—his own supporters talking back—but he can learn to draw strength from their courage. If people fail to step up with their own message, the president will likely fail with his.