By Solveig Torvik
Five years ago this month, Barack Hussein Obama surfed into the Oval Office on a massive wave of adulation and hope.
That wave has collapsed and receded, leaving Obama stranded on a shoreline littered with the detritus of disappointment, failure and plunging poll numbers.
Some of this is just the normal ebb and flow of politics. But not all of it.
The success of Obama’s health care reform is threatened by self-inflicted wounds. The incompetent website rollout and his incomprehensible false promise that those who want to keep their insurance can do so under Obamacare has dropped his ratings to all-time lows. His explanation of his false promise remains murky, charitably put.
Preserving a politician’s plausible deniability is standard defensive procedure when screw-ups happen inside the Beltway. But for him, his frequently heard “I didn’t know” defense is backfiring. If Obama is as poorly served by his advisers as he seems to be, it’s on him to fire them. Meanwhile, his apparent failure to understand the essential requirements of his own health care reform raises serious questions about his competence and due diligence. Which is worse –that he knew what was going wrong on his watch and denies he knew it? Or that he didn’t know? Hello?
How could someone who appeared so ready to steer this country back to its better self find himself where he is today? It’s a bewildering question with many irritating answers.
First and foremost is the inexorable law of nature: waves collapse. Nowhere is this more evident than in political life, especially in a president’s second term – particularly if the president-elect reports for duty saddled with hugely unrealistic voter expectations, enamored of his own biography, and hobbled by inexperience, naiveté and overconfidence. From the outset, he misunderstood his opponents’ intransigence and what to do about it.
Let’s remember where he came in. Three devastating failures characterize the Bush/Cheney administration: slumbering while terrorists launched their attack on the World Trade Center, ignoring Wall Street’s financial terrorists as they sabotaged the economy, and launching a war against Iraq under false pretenses. All in all, a breathtaking breach of the public trust.
To compensate for their humiliating failure to protect the nation, Bush/Cheney embarked on an aggressive program of un-American behavior, torturing suspected terrorists, some of whom still languish without trial at Guantanamo. Bush/Cheney also got very serious about spying on American citizens. The United States metamorphosed into a nation many Americans – and friendly foreigners – didn’t recognize.
Obama was elected to correct course, largely on the strength of his charm, a powerful historical imperative, and the values embedded in his soaring oratory, not for his experience in governing.
Inheriting a big mess not of his making, his first months were spent struggling to avoid a global economic meltdown. He succeeded; we went to the edge of disaster but didn’t plunge over it. However, Wall Street remains dangerously under-regulated and is engaged in even more risky behaviors than before.
Comporting with his lofty vision of himself as a bridge-builder, Obama was a hero to the world. We Americans fail to grasp how important it is to watchful, hopeful citizens of other lands that we act in concert with our stated ideals. Despite maddening evidence to the contrary, this nation still is looked to as the lodestone of democracy, and people the world over want to believe that it can work as advertised.
That a black man was elected to the planet’s most powerful job in a nation that formerly bought and sold black human beings reflects as positively on the United States as on the candidate himself. Obama’s election told the world we are what we claim to be.
So little wonder, really, that only nine months after he was elected, the Norwegians awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama the anti-Bush, apparently for Being Black While President. Obama went to Oslo to collect his prize and pointedly lectured the achingly pacifist Norwegians on the moral imperatives of warfare.
Today, though, Fortune magazine reports that Russia’s Vladimir Putin, not Obama, is the world’s most powerful leader. The presidential candidate who brought 200,000 cheering people into the streets of Berlin now finds himself explaining to German Chancellor Angela Merkel why his government, unbeknownst to him, is spying on her. Moreover, this former professor of constitutional law has yet to make a legally persuasive case for spying on us.
It’s impossible to talk about Obama’s stalled-out presidency without giving due credit to Republicans, whose unprecedented, politically bankrupt goal is to thwart his every effort to govern. They have no other visible agenda. So Obama’s failure to enact sensible gun controls, say, or close Guantanamo, largely can be laid at their feet, not his.
But Obama brings his own strategic miscalculations and flaws into play. He labors under a serious handicap: he’s not a politician by temperament; he’s a professor. His behavior suggests that his three-year drop-by in the U.S. Senate didn’t teach him that one-on-one engagement and massaging of Congressional egos is essential if you want to enact laws. He shuns the pressing of flesh and twisting of arms, apparently believing that everyone is as logical as he is and thus reason, plus his good will, eagerness to compromise and oratory will suffice.
Alas, Congress doesn’t live in that world. Successful governance is a dark art that requires meting out personal rewards and punishment. It’s about instilling fear and loyalty. It’s not pretty, but it’s the grease that turns the gears of government. Those gears have stopped turning in Washington, D.C., and not just because Republicans are sore losers.
It’s also because Obama has not mastered, nor even properly grasped, the levers of presidential power. If he doesn’t, his legacy will be limited to being the first black president of the United States.
The sorry truth is that despite all of the Republicans’ doomsday hysterics about Obama, no one in Congress is afraid of him.
Solveig Torvik is a former Washington, D.C., political correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She lives in Winthrop.