The Pragmatist

Obama’s greatest mistake is to be flexible when he shouldn’t but stand on principle when he can’t afford to.

President Barack Obama listens during an economic policy meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, September 11, 2009
President Barack Obama listens during an economic policy meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, September 11, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

With his approval ratings hovering around 50 percent and the opposition likely to win significantly in November’s midterm elections for Congress, Barack Obama should begin to wonder what went wrong along the way. With a message of “hope and change” the president won almost ten million more voters than his opponent in the 2008 elections but has since become divisive and controversial.

The president’s mistake is to be pragmatic when he shouldn’t but stand on principle when he can’t afford to.

The political left, including elements in his own party, have reason to complain about the president’s aloofness to legislative achievements as health care and financial reform. Though praised as monumental and far reaching, Obama failed to effectively sell both overhauls to the public. His administration never managed to counter the Republican narrative of “government takeovers” and is now suffering the consequences in the polls.

A waning approval rating may have discouraged the administration from pursuing principle on issues that were more straightforward. When a federal judge, last month, dismissed California’s ban on same-sex marriage as arbitrary and unconstitutional, the White House remained silent, no matter its careful attempts at repealing the military’s infamous policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” toward gay servicemen and -women.

When the governor of Arizona signed a controversial immigration bill into law last April, one that many allege not only legalizes but encourages racial profiling, the president merely voiced disapproval but didn’t take advantage of the situation to make the case for freer immigration to America.

Most recently, with the planned construction of a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan, New York inspiring a newfound resentment with Islam throughout the country, Obama at first appeared to defend religious freedom only to retreat the very next day, noting that the project — which opponents have successfully dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque” — really isn’t any of his business as president.

This president is perfectly adamant about reforming the American economy, favoring a greater involvement for government in regulating and overseeing industry and trade in spite of a majority of Americans opposing his policies in this regard. But whenever he has a chance to assert leadership on values — including marriage, immigration and faith — Obama refrains from spearheading the national debate but lets his popularity suffer instead.

Obama’s declining appeal with voters both right and center should not be blamed entirely on unpopular legislation. What has Americans worried and confused is that their president exhibits no clear principles but prides himself on being “pragmatic” and “willing to compromise.” That’s fine for any lawmaker but a president should lead on ideas, not just listen to them.