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President Barack Obama walks away from the podium after making a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 19, 2011. (Susan Walsh/AP)
President Barack Obama walks away from the podium after making a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 19, 2011. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Konrad Yakabuski

Would the real Barack Obama please stand up? Add to ...

A few months ago, U.S. President Barack Obama was the undisputed champ of compromise, a bipartisan, if impotent, voice of reason in Washington's rancorous debt-ceiling and budget debates. This week, in the face of ominous economic winds, he unveiled a new, stridently populist persona. It was, in part, a response to liberal critics who thought he had been playing too nice with the Republicans, with nothing to show for it. The story of this President has been one of continually shifting narratives, which prompts the question, who is the real Obama? A frustrated liberal? An ineffectual centrist? A slippery cynic? Or a hero still waiting to take flight? Take Konrad Yakabuski's multiple-choice quiz and decide for yourself.

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a) A FRUSTRATED LIBERAL TECHNOCRAT (JIMMY CARTER)

Last month, Barack Obama's campaign arm, Organizing for America, sent an e-mail to supporters with a curious subject line. It read: “Frustrated.”

“It's been a long time since Congress was focused on what the American people need them to be focused on,” the President wrote. “I know that you're frustrated by that. I am, too.”

It's a far cry from “Yes We Can.” But it sums up the sense of powerlessness the Obama presidency has projected. He would change the country, all right. But Congress just won't let him.

“He is a liberal,” Rice University presidential scholar Douglas Brinkley says. “But we're not in a time warp. There's no money.”

Mr. Obama came to office with a big fat liberal agenda. His health-care reform legislation did not go as far as most progressives wanted, but he did check off a long-standing item on the American left's to-do list.

In early 2009, Mr. Obama used an $800-billion stimulus package to launch an industrial policy through the back door. He was warned against this, even by centrist Democrats.

It might have worked had Mr. Obama carried through with his vow to steer climate-change legislation through Congress. Clean tech makes economic sense only if you put a price on carbon emissions.

But Mr. Obama has done almost nothing to alter U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. A glut of solar panels and electric car batteries now threatens to doom many of those clean-tech factories before they open their doors.

“Carter, Clinton and I all have sort of the disease of being policy wonks,” Mr. Obama told author Ron Suskind in a February interview that appears in Confidence Men, his new book on the Obama White House.

Comparing himself to Jimmy Carter was risky. But there is some truth to it. Mr. Carter also promised a new energy strategy, even installing solar panels on the White House roof. But he did not, or could not, carry it out.

Though Democrats controlled Congress, the taciturn 39{+t}{+h} President had a prickly relationship with leaders on Capitol Hill. Like Mr. Obama, he was a Washington outsider who had developed no rapport with lawmakers.

 

b) A CAUTIOUS INCREMENTALIST(HERBERT HOOVER )

Despite the millions of Americans who are out of work or under water on their mortgages, Mr. Obama has been averse to conflict and seemingly resigned to accepting Republican lines in the sand.

“My take on him is that he is a negotiator who doesn't have a partner to negotiate with,” Prof. Brinkley says.

“He is someone who has a real proclivity toward compromise,” Princeton University history professor Julian Zelizer says. “You can be a Democrat who's willing to cut a deal if that's what you perceive to be the limits of American politics in the post-Reagan era. It doesn't mean you're a conservative. But it does mean there are limits to what you fight for.”

The liberal left is nourishing a litany of gripes about Mr. Obama's refusal to rock the boat. He has not pushed the kind of financial reforms needed to end business as usual on Wall Street. His first stimulus bill was far too small. He had done little to address the growth in poverty on his watch or usher in a New Deal for black Americans.

Mr. Obama inherited a crisis and promised to channel Franklin D. Roosevelt to solve it. Instead, he acted like Herbert Hoover.

Writing in Harper's Magazine in mid-2009, author Kevin Baker predicted that it would turn out this way. His invocation of Mr. Hoover was not as much of an insult as it sounds. Elected a year before the 1929 crash, Mr. Hoover was also considered a brainiac.

“We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us,” wrote one journalist covering Mr. Hoover's inauguration. “Almost with the air of giving genius its chance, we waited for the performance to begin.”

When the Depression took hold, Mr. Hoover failed to take on its root causes. He was too much of a pragmatist to try to upend the existing order.

He did create the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to bail out banks and railways – a bold intervention for a Republican. But the scale of the crisis called for much bolder action.

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