Ethics & Public Policy Center

Our Chastened President

Published in Commentary Magazine on January 23, 2014



In David Remnick’s nearly 17,000-word article in the New Yorker, President Obama spoke about whether the use of drones was radicalizing civilian populations we need to win over:

Look, you wrestle with it. And those who have questioned our drone policy are doing exactly what should be done in a democracy—asking some tough questions. The only time I get frustrated is when folks act like it’s not complicated and there aren’t some real tough decisions, and are sanctimonious, as if somehow these aren’t complicated questions.

Even if you have, as I do, some sympathy with the point the president is making, this needs to be said: Barack Obama is probably not the best person to lecture others about being sanctimonious or speaking in overly simplistic terms about the challenges faced by a president. For Mr. Obama, being president seemed so easy before he actually was president.

To be sure, everyone who runs for president has a healthy ego and high expectations. But Mr. Obama belongs in a category all his own.

According to Game Change, during the 2008 campaign Obama surrounded himself with aides who referred to Obama as a “Black Jesus.” (Obama didn’t appear to object.) “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions,” Obama told congressional Democrats during his first presidential campaign. During the campaign, while still a one-term senator, Obama decided he wanted to give a speech in Germany–and he wanted to deliver it at the Brandenburg Gate. A convention speech wasn’t enough; Greek columns needed to be added.

“We know that what began as a whisper has now swelled to a chorus that cannot be ignored, that will not be deterred, that will ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, make this time different than all the rest,” Obama told supporters after his victories on Super Tuesday in 2008.

“Generations from now we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment,” Obama said as the primary season came to an end–a moment when, among other achievements, “the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.” On the day of his inauguration, the newly sworn-in president proclaimed “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

That was then. Today President Obama is coming off of what Remnick refers to as hisannus horribilis, from the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare to the bungled policy in Syria to across-the-board legislative failures to a majority of the country now believing the president is neither truthful nor honest.

Mr. Obama has changed. “When I asked Obama if he had read or seen anything that fully captured the experience of being in his office,” Remnick writes, “he laughed, as if to say, You just have no idea.” The president admits the country is tiring of him and that he’s overexposed. If you’re doing big, hard things, President Obama informs us, there “is going to be some hair on it – there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody.” We learn that politics doesn’t proceed in straight lines. That we have to take the long view. And that sometimes, like a sailor, “you’re being blown all over the place.”

Elsewhere the president tells Remnick, “One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as President is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history. You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable.” When he is criticized for his handling of Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009 or the last days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011, we’re told he complains that people imagine him to have a “joystick” that allows him to manipulate precise outcomes. When discussing his initiatives dealing with Iran, Syria, and Israel and the Palestinians, the president says, “in all three circumstances we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us.”

“The President of the United States cannot remake society,” Mr. Obama admits at one point. “At the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

So Mr. Obama has gone from promising to “remake the world,” “heal the planet” and “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” to (forgive the clashing metaphors) being blown all over the place and being a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, trying to avoid being crushed by runaway boulders and just trying to get our paragraph right.

Barack Obama is a chastened man trying to make sense of his multiplying failures. Well into his second term, blaming them on his predecessor no longer works. One can now see the outlines of the new explanation: The job is too big, the country too divided, the opposition too unreasonable, the world too complicated, the tools we have to fix things too few.

There is another alternative. Mr. Obama wasn’t ready to be president and he hasn’t learned very much as president. He has constantly been overmatched by events. And now his presidency is being undone by them.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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