Why Barack Obama Disappoints

According to conservatives, the president is too left of center but liberals complain that he isn’t assertive enough.

American president Barack Obama observes the annual Memorial Day ceremony at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois, May 31, 2010
American president Barack Obama observes the annual Memorial Day ceremony at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois, May 31, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

Americans’ disillusionment with their president appears to have spread into his own party this year. Whereas conservatives long resented Barack Obama because, they said, he is too left of center, the Democrat’s supporters are complaining that he isn’t liberal enough.

In today’s heavily polarized American politics, the president’s posturing is hardly recognized for what it is — an ideological pragmatism that his administration fails to translate into an expedient political strategy.

Whenever Obama is given a chance to assert leadership on values, whether it’s gay marriage, immigration or the virtue of “big government,” he hardly attempts to change people’s minds but allows opposition Republicans to define the contours of the national debate instead. The president then takes the middle ground and proclaims himself “reasonable” but his popularity suffers because voters don’t understand what’s his own position.

When he speaks about the regulatory expansion that occurred during his administration, Obama stresses the need for clear “rules of the road” to steer the economy but not before praising the dynamism of American entrepreneurship, satisfying neither his political allies nor his foes. Businessmen don’t want any new regulations while committed leftists wish the president were tougher on banks and corporations which they deem responsible for today’s economic malaise.

When he had to decide whether to retreat from Afghanistan as soon as possible, as anti-war activists and pacifist lawmakers had suggested, or commit to a prolonged engagement as favored by his generals, the president initiated a “surge” to change the course of the war before opting for a timetable of withdrawal that according to his top military advisor, Admiral Michael Mullen, was “more aggressive and [incurred] more risk” than the military was originally prepared to accept.

Recent negotiations over raising the nation’s legal debt limit with Republicans, who hold a majority in the lower chamber of Congress, were perhaps most emblematic of the president’s failure to stay the course. While members of his own party advocated tax increases, conservatives insisted on spending cuts to balance the budget. Obama, appealing to compromise, embraced both in moderation and positioned himself as the “adult in the room” who was able to overcome the intransigence of blind ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum — though especially on the side of the opposition, of course, where small-government “extremists” were holding the country “hostage” with their “reckless” demand that government live within its means.

By declaring his willingness to compromise before an argument could ever be had, the president appeared weak and without conviction. It’s this indecisiveness that disappoints liberal voters whose hopes were raised by a 2008 campaign that promised to transcend partisanship and shattered by the realities of politics in Washington.

Both of the Democratic majority’s signature pieces of legislation — health-care and financial reform — failed to garner bipartisan support and were in fact enacted over vehement Republican opposition. The president, while endorsing both reform efforts and supposedly “leading from behind,” seemed invisible during the process whereas his office excelled at demonizing conservatives. Last month’s budget talks were no different. The White House forecast catastrophe if both parties didn’t reach an agreement but the president never revealed his own solution to the nation’s fiscal crisis.

Americans cannot be blamed for suspecting that their president might not actually have a plan. Even in his pragmatism, he is ambivalent, inviting Republicans to bargain with him only to berate their convictions when they don’t concede to his demands — which, at least in public, never surpassed platitudes of “shared sacrifice” and “fairness.”

Independents are left wondering what it is that the president wants. Liberals are asking themselves whether he might actually not have the audacity to stay true to the values which they believe he holds secretly but doesn’t talk about for fear of alienating centrist voters.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are seizing on the opportunity to profess that the president is feckless and has to be replaced come 2012.