I can recall only three presidents in the last 75 years whose force of personality -- charisma and all that -- was so powerful that it was their most effective governing tool. They would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and, of course, Barack Obama.
This tool, however, can be a double-edged sword. While all three presidents were able to accomplish a great deal, in the cases of FDR (the Great Depression) and Obama (the Great Recession and an obdurate opposition party) under trying circumstances, their personalities masked weaknesses. That was especially true of Reagan, who while talking the talk was a lightweight in several respects, and that is turning out to be the case with Obama.
While Obama is not a lightweight in the sense that Reagan and Obama's predecessor were with their innate lack of curiosity and under-exercised intellects, the current president has failed to act on several aspects of his pre-inauguration agenda and has pretty much gotten away with it because . . . well, the force of his personality. Despite the many bumps in the road and self-inflicted wounds that his administration has endured over the last three years, he retains an almost cult-like following that has largely silenced even disaffected liberal supporters.
Well, I am one of those disaffected liberal supporters and I'm madder than hell that Obama has not just failed but plain refused to act on curbing the civil liberty excesses of the Bush-Cheney interregnum. He has failed to close Guantánamo Bay as he had promised and failed to stop or limit the warrantless surveillance program and military tribunals.
Johnathan Turley nailed it the other day when he wrote of Obama in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that:
"[P]erhaps the biggest blow to civil liberties is what he has done to the movement itself. It has quieted to a whisper, muted by the power of Obama's personality and his symbolic importacet as the first black president as well as the liberal who replaced Bush. Indeed, only a few days after he took office, the Nobel committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize without his having a single accomplishment to his credit beyond being elected. Many Democrats were, and remain, enraptured."
I disagree with Turley in one respect: His bewilderment at the utter absence of a push for an alternative Democratic candidate in 2012. Turley's chops as a legal commentator are first rate. He's one of the very best. But he's on unrealistic ground here because, like it or not, the idea of fielding an alternative to face a Mitt Romney or Rick Perry next year is ludicrous.
This is because despite the disaffection that I and others may feel about his lack of a civil liberties agenda he has accomplished a great deal, especially in the face of Republicans whose primary goal has not been to help him jump start a moribund economy but to do everything in their power to drag him down -- and by extension the country that they profess or love.
These accomplishments include key first steps in health-care reform and a brilliantly successful campaign to bring down Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda bigs, the former by dint of his ability to persuade and the latter because he never was the weakling on national defense that Republicans still claim he is.
Yet Obama will be judged at the end of the day, which is to say at the end of his first term, by being able to finally revive the economy. This will take hundreds of billions of dollars that don't now exist as a second major stimulus and the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs when the nation's biggest employers are more interesting in reaping record profits. It will take more than a forceful personality to pull all of that off.