The Thursday before last, President Barack Obama came home from his eight-day trip to Asia and received a welcome even frostier than the subfreezing temperatures that had greeted him in Beijing. In the House of Representatives, the populist Democrat Peter DeFazio of Oregon was calling for the heads of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers on a pair of pikes. The Congressional Black Caucus was thwarting the progress of Obama’s financial-reform agenda, on the grounds that the economic policies of the first African-American president were callous toward African-Americans. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, furious about provisions regarding illegal immigrants in the Senate health-care bill, was casting blame on the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. The next morning, the front page of the Washington Post featured a story with the blaring headline “Angry Congress Lashes Out at Obama,” but which might as well have been titled “What a Difference a Year Makes.”
It hasn’t actually been quite that long, of course, but the memory of Obama’s joyous inauguration seems distant indeed—as the lofty image of a candidate with such potential that he seemed to walk on air has given way to the reality of a president neck-deep in a pile of epochal problems. “Think about what we were handed,” says White House senior adviser and First Friend Valerie Jarrett. “Two wars. A global economic meltdown. The largest deficit in the nation’s history. A health-care crisis. A public-education crisis. An energy crisis. And a crisis in how we’ve been perceived around the world.” Jarrett sighs. “It is what it is.”
In coping with this grim inheritance, Obama has brought to bear great aplomb and fortitude, and his achievements have been considerable. Together with his team and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, he has helped prevent the economy from tumbling into the abyss. He has changed the tone of America’s relationships abroad and begun the restoration of the country’s global standing. At considerable political cost, he has undertaken the reformation of a health-care system desperately and urgently in need of it. Compared with his predecessor, he is a model of rationality and rigor. Compared with the extant Republican alternatives—the appalling burlesque sideshows that are Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney—he occupies an entirely different rung on the political and moral evolutionary ladder. And yet, for all of that, there’s no denying this fact: You’d have to be stone deaf not to hear the air hissing out of the Obama balloon.
For the first time in his presidency, Obama’s job-approval ratings have slipped below 50 percent. The American public, with its chronic impatience and a collective attention span measured in angstroms, demands quick fixes—but Obama has none to offer. The Republican right has been feral and effective in painting its foe as an unholy amalgam of Hitler, Stalin, and Cornel West. And the Democratic left, always delusional about the degree to which Obama was a fellow traveler, has been sorely disappointed to discover that he’s not a combination of Ted Kennedy, Norman Thomas, and Chuck D.
Yet the emerging doubts about Obama among even his most ardent and sensible fans are deeper and more nuanced than that. After 300-plus days in office, the president remains, for many of his supporters, a worryingly indistinct figure. One whose pragmatic sensibility is crystal clear but bedrock convictions are still blurry. And whose White House has proved less than fully adept at the marriage of politics and policy, preferring all too often to fall back on their boss’s charm and dazzle to advance the ball upfield.
“I have no idea what they believe,” a leading House Democrat and Obama ally told me recently when I asked if he could define the administration’s governing philosophy. “I know that their governing strategy seems to be, ‘Don’t worry, the big guy will make it all right in the end.’ They have the sublime sense that they don’t have to do all that much to plan events, or to come up with the message for what they’re doing, or to line up support, because whenever they need to, they can just put Mike Tyson in the ring. And I think (a) it’s wrong, and (b) it’s a bad way to run a White House.”
The limits of that approach will be sorely tested in the period now about to unfold before us. Starting this week, Obama will unveil or have forced upon him a series of pivotal decisions—on Afghanistan (with his big speech set for Tuesday night), health care, the economy, and the deficit. The choices entailed will be hard and clarifying, doing more to define his tenure than any he has confronted so far. And he will make them while skating on thinner ice with both his party and the electorate at large than hardly anyone imagined possible on that frigid and fantabulous January day when he was sworn in. The political perils of this period will be immense, but so will the opportunity: for the president finally to erect on the foundation of the Obama brand something more vital—a working vision of Obamaism; for him to right the ship, recapture the magic, reinflate the balloon; and in the process, to reaffirm the reasons why so many of us invested such hope and faith in him in the first place.