Missing his moment, and America’s
Woody Allen got it wrong. Ninety percent of success in life isn’t just showing up; it’s showing up at the right time and knowing what to do once you get there.
Barack Obama has gotten it half right then. Like most of our consequential presidents, he arrived at the right time; unlike them, he may have badly misread his moment, and America’s.
This intuitive capacity (or lack of it) to read the nation’s mood and circumstances accurately is a crucial component of effective leadership. In Obama’s case, it may well be that who he is and what he has wanted have prevented him from seeing clearly what most Americans want and need.
Because we focus on the character and personal qualities (for good or ill) of our presidents, we often ignore the importance of circumstances and just plain dumb luck in elevating or constraining presidential performance.
Let’s consider three undeniably great presidents, one a century. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt can lay claim to greatness because they had a chance to be great, and that chance derived from circumstances over which they had little control. To oversimplify, but not by much, Washington was there when a nation needed to be created, Lincoln was there to save it and FDR to shepherd it safely through the Depression and the world’s greatest war.
Other consequential presidents had the good fortune to follow weak predecessors ( Andrew Jackson, after John Quincy Adams), to arrive at moments when the country was ripe for real change (Lyndon Johnson after a martyred John Kennedy) or to show up at a favorable moment in what presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek calls “political time,” when one coalition or party is weakening and another is gaining strength ( Ronald Reagan, after Jimmy Carter).
The point is that the hour, the circumstance and the season set up the great man. But this kind of luck only creates the possibility of change, not its certainty. For this, you need the marriage of a skillful president and his moment. And near the top of that president’s must-have qualities is the acute capacity to grasp where the nation is and where it can go.
Washington found just the right balance between the fear of too much national government and the threats that would have undermined the new nation without enough government.
Lincoln’s willful and principled commitment to the Union without slavery was married to tactics that contained enough zigs and zags so that he could maintain confidence and trust and ask great sacrifice of the half of the nation he represented.
FDR’s mix of ironclad confidence and reassurance, together with practical experimentation and use of government-as-remedy in response to 30% unemployment, captured the mood of a nation, calmed its fears and sustained its hopes.
Moreover, all great transformers wrap their actions in values and ideals that, while bold, are also familiar and consistent with those of the nation’s story. Lincoln and FDR, for example, sold revolutionary change by claiming that it was anchored in what the nation’s founders had intended all along. In the case of FDR, Thomas Jefferson was the Democratic anchor of choice. Indeed, it was no accident that the Jefferson Memorial was built, and Jefferson’s face was stamped onto the nickel, during the Roosevelt administration.
Like other consequential presidents, Obama was a man on a mission in 2008. But he has allowed his agenda to obscure his capacity to see where most Americans were and what they wanted.
First, he was convinced that the country was so badly served by his Republican predecessor that most Americans understood the need for sweeping change and were prepared to support it. Second, he misread his crisis: the recession. That crisis, though severe to be sure, was not so nation-encumbering that it forced the political system out of fear or desperation to become more pliable. When combined with a Republican Party determined to say no to just about anything, transformative change has proved difficult indeed.
Besides, Obama isn’t FDR. He wasn’t as skilled, as grounded in the American experience or, frankly, as likable as Roosevelt, and so he hasn’t come to serve as a repository of the nation’s trust and confidence. FDR, like Obama, was hated by many, but he was also beloved by millions.
Finally, unlike some of his predecessors who grounded change in values that many Americans found familiar and functional, Obama hasn’t found a unifying message situated in an American experience that is universally shared. Part of Obama’s problem is his uniqueness: His professorial, detached and cool-to-cold nature, the racial prejudice against him and his outlier background make him a different kind of president than most Americans have known.
Obama may have had no choice but to introduce a large stimulus bill to stop the economic bleeding, but healthcare reform (and the way it was done) represented an overreach and stressed a political system that was already dysfunctional. It also convinced many, however unfairly, that he was a man of the left and a big-spending liberal to boot. It isn’t for nothing that Gallup ranked him as the most polarizing first-year president since its polling began. Liberals are unhappy, independents are running away, Republicans are rejoicing in his travail, and movements like the “tea party” are gaining ground — all of which makes the case for Obama as polarizer in chief. Only 13% of Americans believe they have benefited from his economic policies, the most depressing statistic of all.
But the president probably isn’t all that worried. There’s plenty of time and space for improvement, particularly if unemployment numbers drop. And as the second-term victories of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush suggest, we are hardly reelecting great presidents these days; average ones will do quite nicely, as long as the economy stays strong.
In fact, if Obama is reelected in 2012, for only the second time in our history we will have had three different two-term presidents in a row. The last time this happened was in the early 19th century (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe). And what does this tell you? Americans aren’t so much looking for great presidents, big ideas or historic transformations. They want satisfaction on mundane matters such as prosperity, keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks and an end to the roller-coaster ride of partisanship, name-calling and celebrity politics that is Washington today.
The president may not have gotten that message the first time around; if he’s lucky, maybe he’ll get it the next time.
Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His book “Can America Have Another Great President?” will be published in 2012.