If ubiquity were the measure of a presidency, Barack Obama would already be grinning at us from Mount Rushmore. But of course it is not. Despite his many words and television appearances, our elegant and eloquent president remains more an emblem of change than an agent of it. He's a man with an endless, worthy to-do list—health care, climate change, bank reform, global capital regulation, AfPak, the Middle East, you name it—but, as yet, no boxes checked "done." This is a problem that style will not fix. Unless Obama learns to rely less on charm, rhetoric, and good intentions and more on picking his spots and winning in political combat, he's not going to be reelected, let alone enshrined in South Dakota.In a little over a month, Barack Obama will celebrate the anniversary of his election and absolutely nothing substantive has been done in his Presidency other than a rather lengthy "blame Bush" game. The problem is that no one outside of Washington is really playing "Blame Bush" any more. The voting electorate knows that Bush isn't the President and hasn't been involved in the political debate in almost a year.
The president's problem isn't that he is too visible; it's the lack of content in what he says when he keeps showing up on the tube. Obama can seem a mite too impressed with his own aura, as if his presence on the stage is the Answer. There is, at times, a self-referential (even self-reverential) tone in his big speeches. They are heavily salted with the words "I" and "my." (He used the former 11 times in the first few paragraphs of his address to the U.N. last week.) Obama is a historic figure, but that is the beginning, not the end, of the story.
There is only so much political mileage that can still be had by his reminding the world that he is not George W. Bush. It was the winning theme of the 2008 campaign, but that race ended nearly a year ago. The ex-president is now more ex than ever, yet the current president, who vowed to look forward, is still reaching back to Bush as bogeyman.
So the Fineman is right on teh money, Barack Obama can no longer duck his responsibility and ownership of the helm of the Great Ship of the United States. His watch, by pretty much every measure other than television appearances, is an abject failure. He has failed to capitalize on the multitude of crises facing the country pursuant to Rahm Emanuel's belief about not wasting crises. His centerpieces of policy--cap and trade, health care, economic recovery, and so forther are abject failures. Furthermore, Obama can't blame a contrary Congress, as I said, Democrats overwhelmingly control both chambers. Obama can't blame the courts, for they have not been in a position to rule on Obama initiatives because none have become law.
Fineman's advice and mine as well, were I disposed to helping Obama, would be to focus all his excess energy on one policy goal.
The model is a man whose political effectiveness Obama repeatedly says he admires: Ronald Reagan. There was never doubt about what he wanted. The Gipper made his simple, dramatic tax cuts the centerpiece not only of his campaign but also of the entire first year of his presidency.The problem Obama faces on this score is something very un-Reagan like. Obama and the Congressional Democrats want a grand, perfect solution right now. Reagan was the master of asking for the big deal and compromising for a smaller deal in order to move the goalpost forward. Obama wants perfection, Reagan was happy for good enough.
Obama seems to think he'll get credit for the breathtaking scope of his ambition. But unless he sees results, it will have the opposite effect—diluting his clout, exhausting his allies, and emboldening his enemies.
Realism is something that has escaped the Obama Administration and if they don't start embracing realism, the reality of their failure will come to fruition in 2012.