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David Shribman

What happened to Obama? His office Add to ...

Executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It began with such promise, with history whispering, with hopes soaring. Here was a new president, the first African-American to win the White House, and even his critics knew there was something special to his inauguration, that great-grandchildren yet unborn would be taught that, on Jan. 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the leader of a nation that nearly a century and a half earlier had held blacks in the cruel bondage of slavery.

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Now, a year later, the historic aura remains, the more so perhaps because the sight of a black man and his family in the White House today seems so utterly unremarkable. But it is unmistakable and incontestable that the magic is gone and, along with it, the sense that all things were possible, that all crises could be handled, that all challenges could be met - that the deficit and debt, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, could be handled, gracefully, easily, swiftly.

It is more than the notion that Mr. Obama fell to Earth. It is also that the problems were more intractable in the Oval Office than they seemed on the stump, that pretty speeches could not wipe away ugly problems, that his Republican opponents would not swoon at the sight and sound of him. Nor did he expect his biggest problems to come from his fellow Democrats, who didn't believe in the bipartisanship he espoused as a candidate and who had no interest - no intellectual interest, no personal interest - in changing how Washington worked. It worked just fine for them.

So now we have a president who still is liked by the American people but whose performance is regarded with some skepticism, a chief executive who has been curiously absent from deliberations on a health-care overhaul he says is his top domestic priority, a leader who made a lot of history the moment he took the ancient oath of office but hasn't made much since. One of his books is called The Audacity of Hope, but, so far, the President has offered far more hope than audacity.

Still, he has completed only a quarter of his first term and, if he is re-elected, this first year will have constituted just 12.5 per cent of his presidency.

He has taken on a lot - perhaps that is one of his problems, the inability to create a set of priorities - and the things he has taken on will require a lot of time. The war in Afghanistan won't be won in an instant. Health care accounts for one-seventh of the U.S. economy and even a popular president can't upend that with a snap of the fingers. Climate change was a difficult international problem long before Mr. Obama took office, so the fact that there isn't global consensus yet can't be laid at his door. And yet, in all of these areas, he has made a beginning.

Many analysts in Washington - especially those who are veterans of the "economy, stupid" administration of Bill Clinton, the only Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to win two full terms - are arguing that the focus needs to be on jobs. An unemployment rate in the 10-per-cent range is unacceptable to everyone, although the blame may not be fairly pinned on Mr. Obama. The first decade of the new century was the first in modern times in which job growth was zero. (It was 20 per cent in the two preceding decades, 27 per cent in the so-called stagnant 1970s.) Mr. Obama was in office for just 10 per cent of the 2000s.

But the problem with the presidency is that problems come with it. (Quick quiz: Which U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge has had relatively smooth sailing? Answer: None.) For a time, indeed for probably too long a time, Mr. Obama ran a woe-is-me White House, complaining about the mess George W. Bush left behind, forgetting that he had not merely asked for the job, he had worked desperately hard, against remarkable odds, to win it. Richard Nixon inherited Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan inherited Jimmy Carter's stagflation, Mr. Clinton inherited George H. W. Bush's economic malaise. The crises and challenges do not end when the next president takes the oath of office. And Mr. Obama will see that the problems he created or neglected in his term (or two, if he is re-elected in 2012) won't disappear once he boards Air Force One for his valedictory trip home to Chicago. This is the nature of the presidency.

What we have here is not so much a Washington crisis - the economy is creeping toward recovery, after all, and Iraq is quiet if not pacified and the debate on Afghan policy is resolved, at least for the next six months - as a Washington mystery: What happened to the Barack Obama the Americans once knew?

The Barack Obama who believed in hope, who believed that rational policy analysis would produce rational policy, that treating Canada and Mexico and the rest of the world with respect would produce results, who believed that chasing the lobbyists and the other money-changers from the temple of Capitol Hill would be redemptive in itself?

What happened to him? The presidency happened to him.

Some presidents (John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford) need to grow into the office; some (Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush) need to grow up. Perhaps Mr. Obama needs to do a bit of both. But in an age where Washington speaks of a "permanent campaign," the United States and the world may need nothing more than for Mr. Obama to stop campaigning for the presidency and to start occupying it. Life is not an audition, and Mr. Obama's job is not, either - except perhaps an audition for history, which, as previous presidents have learned to their peril and immense disappointment, is a demanding, merciless judge.

 

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