Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

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 ...

“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.

Report Typo/Error
Single page

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski



Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular