The Obama enigma

The political left that President Obama has disappointed and the right that is dedicated to his political defeat must agree that he is a decent and good man. Despite both their wishes (though their motives are quite different) that America had a different (read stronger-weaker) leader, he may be reelected, though the likelihood of that inevitability is diminishing (how it could happen is the subject of another essay to follow). Those of us who were elated by his campaign and election — we who, as the expression went, “drank the Kool-Aid” — have a lesson to learn about electoral politics.

A recent editorial by Matt Bai in The New York Times stated that neither President Obama’s election in 2008 nor the Republican congressional victory in 2010 really had as much to do “with the orthodoxies of liberalism or conservatism” as advertised. Bai attributed both those political phenomena to “manifestations of long-bubbling frustration with the status quo … ” That may be so, in part, but in the case of President Obama, I have another theory.

Candidate Obama presented the public with an open vessel which we could and did fill with our personal hopes and dreams.

1. Blacks saw him, correctly, as the embodiment of their dream of equal possibilities in America. His election was the representative reality of their aspirations. Success did not depend on his views of "Don't ask, don't tell," nor his position on national healthcare, nor his decision about Afghanistan. It was an existential success simply for having happened. My guess is he will keep his significant plurality with that part of the electorate, but by a lower, less passionate margin — their dream was attained.

2. White liberals saw candidate Obama as representing their better view of the political world they hoped for. In him, they could vote for someone who was not an affirmative-action candidate, but rather was smart, articulate, reformist — the ideal image they’d sought. Their — my — hope was encouraged when he was elected, though it has gradually been eroded by a growing reality that, while he may have been an uplifting candidate, and while he admittedly encountered daunting problems the day he became president, some of his critical presidential acts and failures have been disappointing. Nonetheless, some of us will vote for him again because he has no viable, desirable opponent and we personally like the guy; however, some independents would consider voting for such a viable alternative if there was one (not the case today). His numbers of liberal and independent voters will drop in 2012 from where they were in 2008.

3. Most of the media fell in candidate Obama’s thrall in the 2008 campaign. I don’t think they will in 2012. Here, I refer to mainline media, not the always toxic critical-of-everything-he-does media. A more arms-length treatment of the next Obama presidential campaign is likely, along with criticism of his shortcomings in 2012.

There might be disappointments among his fans, but there is no basis for complaint. We got what we saw — an attractive, persuasive candidate. We did know that he had little executive experience. It is disappointing, but in retrospect should have been no surprise, that he decided that he couldn’t afford to take on the military and intelligence powerbrokers once in office. And, he came from a relatively brief political background typified by conciliation. Remember, he first came to public notice when The New York Times reported that he was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review — not as the obvious choice, but as the compromise candidate whom opposing sides could agree upon. We saw in the images of the Obama candidacy our illusions — "hope" was his candid word. In hindsight, experienced voters have nothing to be surprised about; we should have known we’d get what we got: compromiser-in-chief, decent, balanced, cool and calm, patient but not a passionate ideologue.

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington attorney and author who served in the Department of Justice in the Kennedy administration.