Note: This blog was originally published in the August 8, 2013 edition of Politics in Minnesota.
Barack Obama’s presidency is a paradox. At no point has a president been so powerful yet so weak. He is a brilliant orator, capable of inspiring millions, but horrible at influencing Congress. His first term legislative record was a laundry list of major accomplishments, his second term is already over. He wanted to be a post-partisan, post-racial president, but all the polls suggest he is one of the most polarizing modern presidents. How do we explain the president that Barack Obama became, and understand the one that many hoped he would be but failed to achieve?
First, consider the president that everyone thought Obama would be. He was to be the candidate of change. He was to be the president of peace, the anti-Bush who would end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would end torture, close Guantanamo Bay, and bring peace to the Middle East. He would do that while consulting with allies and not going it alone. He was also to be the president of universal health care, more alternative energies, and fixing the economy in a way that would produce more good paying jobs in the green economy of the future.
Obama promised a lot, and he delivered, sort of. We sort of have universal health care with Obamacare, yet it is not clear how well it will work, whether it will save money, or really lead to a change in American health. The economy is sort of on the mends. Millions of new jobs have been created, but we are still years from recovering all the losses from 2008. Wall Street has rebounded, but the gap between the rich and is at record levels. Home values have returned for many, but for millions others their mortgages are still underwater. Corporations have record profits, but salaries and family incomes are flat or lower than they were before he became president. We are officially out of Iraq and close to the same with Afghanistan, but one can hardly say that mission was really accomplished with either. The list could go on. Obama’s accomplishments are significant, but so many of them since incomplete or fragile.
Conversely, who would have ever thought Obama would have been the president to deport more individuals than any other president in history. He has prosecuted more leaks than any other president. He asserted the right to use drones to kill Americans, and he vigorously defends a vast network of NSA spying on Americans. He bailed out the banks but did little for homeowners. Dodd-Frank restructured Wall Street but not a lot for Main Street. His green energy economy went nowhere and most people expect will he endorse the Keystone Pipeline. This is on the heels of him wanting to push more nuclear and “clean coal” technology. It now even looks like he will place Larry Summers instead of Janet Yellen at the head of the Federal Reserve Board.
To his defenders many argue that Obama is still cleaning up Bush’s mess. To liberals he has done no more than warm over Bush era policies. To conservatives, he is a detested socialist. To watch Obama now one gets the sense that he has given up on his presidency and that his second term is already over. He still offers lofty rhetoric about the economy and jobs but no one thinks he can deliver because of Republicans in Congress. True they have fought him all the way but Obama has yet to learn how to negotiate with them. He does not scare them and he cannot seem to beat a dysfunctional and unpopular Republican Party that has fallen out of the ideological mainstream for most Americans. And now it is also clear that eight months into his second term, he has lost the support of his own party. Democrats want Yellen not Summers, they are critical of the NSA but Obama will not budge. His party does not want to negotiate away Social Security and other entitlement programs, Obama seems almost eager to put them on the table to get a grand budget deal. Obama looks increasingly irrelevant politically.
So how did it all happen? Why has Obama always cast his eyes to the side when he looks history or destiny in the eye? Richard Neustadt once said that the power of the presidency is the power to persuade. This power is a combination of many things, including party support, electoral majorities, public opinion, and a host of other factors. But the presidency is more than the formal powers of Article II of the Constitution. It is also a product of the person who is he president. More particularly, presidencies are defined in part by the character of the person who is president.
In Presidential Character, political scientist James David Barber sought to construct a means to describe and categorize presidents. The basic problem we all face is to make an accurate guess to what type of president a candidate will be. According to Barber, a person's personality, psychology, or "character" shapes performance and thus knowing something about a president's character will tell us about possible future performance. In effect, the psychological character of the president melds with the formal office of the presidency to determine governing style.
What types of presidential characters are there? Barber thinks we can make that assessment along two dimensions. There is activity-passivity: How much energy will a person invest in the Presidency? Second there is a positive-negative affect: How does one feel about what one does? Thus, these two dimensions allow for four different types of presidents each having specific examples. Early in his presidency Obama was an active-positive. This is the type of president John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson were. These are presidents as doers–they are results-orientated, flexible, and demonstrate a sense of growth and happiness in their job. This is less the Obama we now see. He displays more the rigidity of active-negative presidents such as Richard Nixon, or the withdrawn passive-negative dimension of Calvin Coolidge, or maybe even the passive-positive of Warren Harding, a president unwilling or unable to act or make decisions.
It is not clear how to classify the current Obama as president but he certainly is not the active-positive one he once was. Moreover, his lack of legislative and administrative experience prior to being president is showing, and his refusal to consult but a handful or close advisors has prevented him from changing his governing style. Whatever energy or character he does have, the clock of his presidency continues to tick, pushing him further and further into a second term lame duck status. Obama’s legacy now is almost beyond his control and absent a surprise, he will leave office a paradox for what he did, could have done, and what he became as president.