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Would the real Barack Obama please stand up?

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

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.


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

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"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.

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"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.


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.

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"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.

"Much like Herbert Hoover, Barack Obama is a man attempting to realize a stirring new vision of his society without cutting himself free from the dogmas of the past – without accepting the inevitable conflict," Mr. Baker wrote. "Like Hoover, he is bound to fail."

Two years later, as the U.S. economy teeters on the edge of a double-dip recession or worse, it is hard to dispute that assessment.


This is the Barack Obama that emerges in Confidence Men. The White House Mr. Suskind describes is a misogynistic workplace run by a detached boss manipulated by his warring advisers.

The Obama White House, if Mr. Suskind's depiction of the first two years is accurate, is a college debating society in which meetings are academic seminars rather than "get 'er done" sessions in crisis management.

When Mr. Obama did call for action in ordering his economic team to draft a plan to wind down beleaguered bank Citigroup, Mr. Suskind charges that he was systematically ignored by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, whose ideas for financial reform were watered down by Mr. Geithner, complains to Mr. Suskind: "Obama is smart, but smart is not enough.  Leadership is another thing entirely, about knowing your mind enough to make real decisions, ones that last."

Hillary Clinton warned Democrats about this. "He was a part-time state senator for a few years and then he came to the Senate and immediately started running for President," she said in early 2008. "That's his prerogative. ... But I think it's important to compare and contrast our records."

Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen wrote in a scathing August New York Times essay: "Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for President."

Despite an impressive 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama has demonstrated weak political skills ever since. In this, he resembles John Quincy Adams, another high-minded president who came to office promising to play fairly only to be undermined by his populist political foes.

The Jacksonian faction in Congress, which favoured states' rights and a small central government, shot down most of Adams's proposals in the same way today's Tea Party Caucus blocks those of a hapless President.

Like Mr. Obama, Adams argued for an activist federal government that would build more roads and canals and create a national education system. But as historian Kathryn Moore writes: "Congress and newspapers derided his lofty ideas as grabs for power and compared him to Julius Caesar."


With the tough stance – at least rhetorically – that Mr. Obama is now taking toward Republicans in Congress, does Dr. Westen want to retract any of his essay lamenting the passionless president?

Not exactly.

"I still have no idea what he believes in his heart of hearts," he says. "Does a fiery speech that will produce no action, and that the person delivering it knows will produce no action, indicate something about what he believes or something about what he believes will help him win re-election?"

More telling than any speech, Dr. Westen insists, is Mr. Obama's move to overrule his own Environmental Protection Agency and nix new air-pollution standards. "Getting that out of the way before the jobs speech was an incredibly smart and cynical move."

The jobs speech and the new line of attack on the rich have given hope to the grassroots that the Obama of 2008 is back. And if they think that Obama is back, they might even campaign for him.

There is no guarantee it will work. Martin Van Buren, who is considered the first professional politician elected president, pioneered grassroots campaigning in the 19th century just as Mr. Obama would later pioneer social-media campaigning in the 21st.

Van Buren swept the election of 1836 thanks, as Ms. Moore notes, to his experience creating "America's first political machine" and moulding of the Democratic Party into that of the common man.

Mr. Obama, Ryan Lizza wrote in a 2008 article in The New Yorker, is "someone who thrived in the world of Chicago politics. … He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game."

But not even a master politician such as Van Buren could save himself in the face of economic Armageddon. The so-called Panic of 1837 and ensuing depression doomed his bid for re-election in 1840.


He did get Osama bin Laden, after all.

Konrad Yakabuski is the chief political writer in The Globe and Mail's Washington bureau.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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