I'll begin this essay by declaring that it is my view that President Obama has not been the major disappointment that has left many liberals and blacks shaking their heads. I'll also note that given the watershed 2008 election and the eight dark years before it, our expectations for the next four were bound to be much too high.
Yet I share some of that sense of disappointment.
While acknowledging the realities of the time in which Obama governs -- an economic crisis that was inherited and a Republican opposition that has been determinedly obstructionist while not so subtly questioning his ability to lead as well as suggesting his patriotism is lacking because, you know, blacks are less patriotic, I have struggled over this long, hot summer to put my finger on the root of the malaise that threatens to overshadow the Obama administration's considerable accomplishments.
What I keep coming back to is this: Even though Obama was been a consummate insider and a magna cum laude graduate of the brass knuckles school of Chicago politics, he campaigned as an outsider that would shake up Washington but Washington shook him up instead.
* Obama chose many of the very same insiders who were asleep at wheel or looked the other way as the seeds of the 2008 economic collapse were sewn. Mind you that outsiders would not have had the experience of insiders, but they would have been possessed with an insight that most of the insiders clearly lacked.
* Obama has played much too nice with the Republicans. Presidents lead by example and Obama's legendary cool has been salutatory. But it became obvious within hours after his inauguration that endless negotiating with an opposition that would not hesitate to bring down the government -- and has twice nearly done so this year alone -- was a zero-sum game. Besides which, voters had given him majorities in both houses.
* Obama, in part because of the opposition, has been content (that perhaps is not the right word) with a half a loaf when a whole loaf was called for. The passage of a sweeping health-care reform law is the signal accomplish of his first term, but it omitted key provisions in the original draft. Ditto with the economic stimulus.
* Obama has equivocated on the war in Afghanistan. Despite taking out Osama bin Laden, as well as being far more decisive on national security issues than Republicans have given him credit for, he has been reluctant to come to terms with the obvious: The U.S.-led NATO coalition cannot "win" in Afghanistan in the conventional sense and it is long past time to get the hell out. Ditto with Iraq.
* Obama has been an admirable communicator who has been compared to FDR in some respects, and his public addresses at key junctures of his presidency have been masterful and elucidating. But he has been unable to articulate an effective alternative to the Republican narrative. FDR did and it worked.
* Obama's inability to articulate that alternative is because he has either lost sight of who he is or never really knew in the first place. Labels can be too simplistic, but is he a liberal? If so, why has he governed like a moderate and sometimes spoken like a conservative? Perhaps because he has tried to please both sides -- or all sides -- too much of the time.
* Obama has been suckered by Republicans on the greatest challenge of his presidency. That is jobs creation in the face of mounting economic inequality. The economy will not begin to recover until millions more Americans can return to work, but they have been largely forgotten because of the Republican mantra that government spending must be cut, whereas an increase in spending is what is badly needed.
* Obama issued go-free cards to Bush administration torture regime perpetrators. His rationale in not ordering the Justice Department to investigate these evildoers is understandable if vexsome. He did not want to begin his presidency with Republicans screaming blue-blooded murder over what they would view as political prosecutions, but they screamed anyway about practically everything else.
If you are among the minority of voters who believed in 2008 that a maverick has-been from Arizona and a wingnut from Alaska were preferable to a fresh face from Illinois and a running mate with outstanding foreign policy credentials, then you not only expected the Democratic challenger to be a disappointment but hoped that it would be.
But it is probable that few of the nearly 70 million Americans who voted for Barack Obama have not been disappointed as I have to an extent and others have to a great extent.
Is it possible that Obama has simply lost his mojo and no longer believes in what he thought he stood for? Or perhaps that audacity of hope stuff was . . . just stuff?
New York Times photograph