Obama, Explained

As Barack Obama contends for a second term in office, two conflicting narratives of his presidency have emerged. Is he a skillful political player and policy visionary—a chess master who always sees several moves ahead of his opponents (and of the punditocracy)? Or is he politically clumsy and out of his depth—a pawn overwhelmed by events, at the mercy of a second-rate staff and of the Republicans? Here, a longtime analyst of the presidency takes the measure of our 44th president, with a view to history.
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press/Corbis Images

In the late 1990s, when his fellow University of Chicago professor Barack Obama had just run for the Illinois State Senate and long before a newly inaugurated President Obama named him to his Council of Economic Advisers, the economist Austan Goolsbee was on the most terrifying airplane trip of his life. He was traveling on Southwest Airlines from St. Louis back to Chicago’s Midway Airport. The plane got into a thunderstorm, and for a while many passengers thought they were doomed.

One jolt of turbulence was so strong that a flight attendant, not yet strapped in, hit her head on the airplane’s ceiling. After another sudden drop, the lights went out on one side of the cabin. The violent ups and downs kept getting worse. Two rows ahead of Goolsbee, a professional-looking woman in her 50s began wailing, “We’re going to die! We’re all going to die!” “Everyone was looking around and on the border of panic,” Goolsbee told me recently. “I was kind of wishing someone would start yelling, ‘No, we’re all not going to die!’”

At last the plane made it safely to Midway. As passengers filed off, Goolsbee spoke with a strapping young man who had been sitting, ashen but stoic and silent, in a window seat next to the woman whose nerves had broken. He was a high-school football player coming to Chicago on a college recruiting trip. “Quite a flight,” Goolsbee said to him. “This is my first time on an airplane,” the young man replied. “Are they always like that? I can see why people don’t like to fly.”

Goolsbee’s punch line to the story is that during his two years in Washington, “I was that kid.” He and his colleagues were trying to devise policies to cope with the worst worldwide economic crisis in living memory, in the most contentious political environment in nearly as long a time. He would ask himself, Is it always like this? He could see why people didn’t like politics and government.

But when I heard the story, my thoughts turned immediately in another direction. Goolsbee may have felt like that kid, but to most of the world, the more obvious comparison would be to the man who hired Goolsbee, Barack Obama. Four years after being sworn in as a freshman senator, occupying a position of executive authority for the first time in his life, Obama was, at age 47, instantly responsible for guiding the world’s superpower and its allies through an emergency that had left far more experienced leaders wailing the political and financial equivalent of “We’re all going to die!”

In office as during his campaign—indeed, through the entirety of his seven-plus years as a national figure since his keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in the summer of 2004—Obama has maintained his stoic, unflapped, “no drama” air. During the fall and winter of 2007, his campaign seemed to be getting nowhere against Hillary Clinton, who was then, to knowledgeable observers, the “inevitable” nominee. In 2008, John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate seemed to energize his campaign so much that, despite gathering signs of financial disaster under the incumbent Republicans, just after Labor Day the McCain-Palin team had opened up a lead over Obama and Joe Biden in several national polls. CBS News and an ABC–Washington Post poll had McCain up by 2 percentage points in early September, a week before the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy; a USA Today–Gallup poll that same week had him ahead by a shocking 10 points. But Obama and Biden stayed unrattled and on message, and two months later they won with a two-to-one landslide in the Electoral College and a 7-point margin in the popular vote. The earnestly devotional HOPE poster by Shepard Fairey was the official icon of the Obama campaign. But its edgier, unofficial counterpart, a Photoshopped Internet image that appeared as an antidote to the panic over polls and Palin, perfectly captured the candidate’s air of icy assurance. It showed a no-nonsense Obama looking straight at the camera, with the caption EVERYONE CHILL THE FUCK OUT, I GOT THIS!

The history is relevant because it shows how quickly impressions of strength or weakness can evaporate and become almost impossible to reimagine. Try to think back to when sophisticated people thought that Sarah Palin was the key to Republican victory, or when Obama’s every political instinct seemed inspired. I can attest personally to a now-startling fact behind Jimmy Carter’s rise to the presidency. When he met privately with editorial-board members and veteran political figures across the country in the early days of his campaign—people who had seen contenders come and go and were merciless in spotting frailties—the majority of them went away feeling that in Carter they had encountered a person of truly exceptional political insight and depth. (You might not believe me; I have the notes.) Is this how the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s choice of Obama as its laureate within nine months of his taking office will look as the years pass—the symbol of a “market top” in the world’s romanticism about Obama?

Whether things seem to be going very well or very badly around him—whether he is announcing the death of Osama bin Laden or his latest compromise in the face of Republican opposition in Congress—Obama always presents the same dispassionate face. Has he been so calm because he has understood so much about the path ahead of him, and has been so clever in the traps he has set for his rivals? Or has he been so calm because, like the high-school kid on the plane, he has been so innocently unaware of how dire the situation has truly been?

This is the central mystery of his performance as a candidate and a president. Has Obama in office been anything like the chess master he seemed in the campaign, whose placid veneer masked an ability to think 10 moves ahead, at which point his adversaries would belatedly recognize that they had lost long ago? Or has he been revealed as just a pawn—a guy who got lucky as a campaigner but is now pushed around by political opponents who outwit him and economic trends that overwhelm him?

Video: Fallows talks to Atlantic Senior Editor Corby Kummer (who edited this story) about Obama’s chances for reelection and why he might actually have something to learn from George W. Bush.

The end of a president’s first term is an important time to ask these questions, and not just because of the obvious bearing on his fitness for reelection. Hard as it is to have any dispassionate discussion of a president’s performance during an election year, it will be even harder once the election is over. If a year from now Obama is settling in for a second term, a halo effect will extend back to everything he did during his first four years. His programs will be more effective in reality, since he will get that many more years to cement them in with follow-up measures, supportive appointments to federal agencies and the courts, and possible vetoes of any attempts at repeal. And, through the lens of history, they will seem more effective, since whatever he did in his first term will appear to have been part of an overall plan that was ratified through reelection. Yet if a year from now a just-beaten former President Obama is thinking about his memoirs and watching his former appointees blame one another, and him, for the loss, the very same combination of missteps and achievements will be viewed as a narrative leading inexorably to defeat. By saying, after a year in office, that he would rather be “a really good one-term” president than a “mediocre” president who served two terms, Obama was playing to the popular conceit that presidents should rise above such petty concerns as reelection. The reality, though, is that our judgment about “really good” and “mediocre” presidents is colored by how long they serve. A failure to win reelection places a “one-term loser” asterisk on even genuine accomplishments. Ask George H. W. Bush, victor in the Gulf War; ask Jimmy Carter, architect of the Camp David agreement.

Not knowing how the election will turn out, what can we say now? I’m not talking about how Obama looks to the roughly one-third of Americans who have been skeptical of him from the start—his highest approval rating was around 70 percent, just after he took office—nor about how he looks to the nearly comparable number who by the end of last year said they still had “strongly favorable” opinions of his performance. But for the seemingly huge number of people who sense that he has shrunk in office and that his administration has achieved less than it should or could have, and for scholars, historians, and political veterans who have matched it against presidencies of the past, is there an objective way to judge Obama’s competence and control?

Early this year, just after Obama dared the Republican-controlled House not to pass a payroll-tax-cut extension and then announced “recess appointments” for nominees who had been blocked by Senate filibuster, Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at UC San Diego, told me that this might be the beginning of a shrewd Truman-esque election-year plan. In his forthcoming book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win—and Hold—the White House, he describes how in 1946 Truman, after suffering a midterm-election setback even worse than Clinton’s in 1994 or Obama’s in 2010, based the come-from-behind success of his reelection campaign on the refusal of a “do-nothing Congress” to work with him or address the country’s problems. Starting late last year, when he defied the House Republicans, Obama has seemed to follow Truman’s script. “What I’d love to know is whether this was all a careful long-term plan,” Popkin said of Obama’s evolution, “or whether they just lucked into it.”

Chess master, or pawn? That is the question I asked a variety of political figures last year, starting when the Obama administration was wrangling with Republicans in Congress to avoid a damaging default on the national debt. I spoke with current and past members of this administration, officials from previous administrations, current and past members of the Senate and the House, and some academics. Compared with the last two times a Democrat was in the White House—during Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970s and Bill Clinton’s in the 1990s—I found Democrats much more careful about criticizing their own party’s president during an election year. It’s not that Democrats have become so much more disciplined, nor, obviously, that they have no complaints, but rather that they seem more worried about the risks of helping the other side. I asked someone who has been close to Obama if I could interview him about his experiences. He said, “I’m not going to say anything that might hurt during the campaign.” At the Capitol, I asked one prominent Democratic legislator what he had learned about Obama as a leader and a person that the general public did not know. He sat for nearly a full minute and then replied, “I would rather not say.” But other people I spoke with—from Congress and inside and outside the administration—volunteered sincere-seeming flattering accounts of the Obama they had observed in informal discussions and strategy sessions. Because of sensitivities on all sides, this article includes something our magazine tries hard to avoid: critical opinions in “blind quotes,” from people not willing to be named. In every case where I’ve used such a quote, it’s from a person I trust and who was in a position to observe the events being described.

Having seen a number of presidencies unfold, and some unravel, I am fully aware of how difficult it is to assess them in real time. What I feel I’ve learned about Obama is that he was unready for the presidency and temperamentally unsuited to it in many ways. Yet the conjunction of right-wing hostility to his programs and to his very presence in office, with left-wing disappointment in his economic record and despair about his apparent inability to fight Republicans on their own terms, led to an underappreciation of his skills and accomplishments—an underappreciation that is as pronounced as the overestimation in those heady early days. Unprepared, yes. Cool to the point of chilly, yes. For all his ability to inspire and motivate people en masse, for all his advertised emphasis on surrounding himself with a first-rate “team of rivals,” Obama appears to have been unsavvy in the FDR-like arts of getting the best from his immediate team and continuing to attract the best people to him.

Yet the test for presidents is not where they begin but how fast they learn and where they end up. Not even FDR was FDR at the start. The evidence is that Obama is learning, fast, to use the tools of office. Whether he is learning fast enough to have a chance to apply these skills in a second term—well, we’ll reconvene next year.

Why Presidents Fail

We judge presidents by the specific expectations they ask to be measured against: inspiration (Kennedy, Reagan, Obama), competence and experience (Eisenhower, the first George Bush), strategic cunning (Johnson, Nixon), integrity and personal probity (Carter), inclusiveness and empathy (Clinton), unshakable resolve (the second Bush). But eventually each is judged against his predecessors, a process that properly starts with a reminder that all begin their terms ill-equipped, in ways that hindsight tends to obscure.

The sobering realities of the modern White House are: All presidents are unsuited to office, and therefore all presidents fail in certain crucial aspects of the job. All betray their supporters and provoke bitter criticism from their own side at some point in their term. And all are mis-assessed while in office, for reasons that typically depend more on luck and historical accident than on factors within their control. These realities do not excuse Obama’s failings, but they do put his evolution in perspective.

Presidents fail because not to fail would require, in the age of modern communications and global responsibilities, a range of native talents and learned skills no real person has ever possessed. These include “smarts” in the normal sense—the analytical ability to cope with the stream of short- and long-term decisions that come at a president nonstop. (How serious is the latest provocation out of North Korea? What are the “out year” budget implications of a change in Medicaid repayment formulas?) A president needs rhetorical clarity and eloquence, so that he can explain to publics at home and around the world the intent behind his actions and—at least as important—so that everyone inside the administration understands his priorities clearly enough that he does not have to wade into every little policy fight to enforce his preferences.

A president needs empathy and emotional intelligence, so that he can prevail in political dealings with his own party and the opposition in Washington, and in face-to-face negotiations with foreign leaders, who otherwise will go away saying that this president is “weak” and that the country’s leadership role is suspect. He needs to be confident but not arrogant; open-minded but not a weather vane; resolute but still adaptable; historically minded but highly alert to the present; visionary but practical; personally disciplined but not a prig or martinet. He should be physically fit, disease-resistant, and capable of being fully alert at a moment’s notice when the phone rings at 3 a.m.—yet also able to sleep each night, despite unremitting tension and without chemical aids.

Ideally he would be self-aware enough that, in the center of a system that treats him as emperor-god, he could still recognize his own defects and try to offset them. The psychoanalyst Justin Frank has written Obama on the Couch as a follow-up to Bush on the Couch, examining the psychological roots of each president’s strengths and weaknesses in office. George W. Bush: eternally craving approval from his distant mother and more accomplished father (and finally surpassing him, solely in being reelected). Barack Obama: aloof and unconnected because of his absent father and his eternal status as outsider.

You can take this psychoanalytic approach seriously, or not. The significant fact is that an abnormal-psych study could be written on every president of the modern era except the one who never ran for national office, Gerald R. Ford, and possibly also the first George Bush. When I heard critical comments about Obama’s personal style, they usually started with this trait: his emotional distance from all but a handful of longtime friends and advisers.

A new president’s first term is usually an experiment in seeing which weak point will limit everything else he does. George W. Bush was disciplined and decisive but not sufficiently informed or inquisitive. Bill Clinton was informed and inquisitive but was nearly driven from office because he was not personally disciplined. George H. W. Bush was disciplined and informed but could not seem empathetic or visionary. Ronald Reagan was eloquent and decisive but less and less attentive to the analytic part of his job. You can take the list back a very long way. Many presidents who survive to a second term and thereby attain the ultimate in political success see their preexisting failings bear worse fruit. Impeachment for Bill Clinton, Iran-Contra for Ronald Reagan, impeachment and resignation for Richard Nixon, and so on. (The main contemporary exception has been George W. Bush, whose most controversial decisions and events all occurred during his first four years—from the invasion of Iraq to passage of the expensive Medicare Part D benefits to the outsized role of his vice president—and who in his second term tacked back from many of those policies.)

Another harsh reality of the modern presidency is one we conveniently forget when thinking about new presidents. Without exception, they betray their followers—and must do so, to stay in office and govern. In Obama’s case, this started with the forgiving approach to Wall Street and continued with his recommitment of troops to Afghanistan and extension of other Bush-era security policies.

However jarring, this is part of a historical norm. George W. Bush’s name was barely mentioned in the recent Republican primaries, because a party that professes concern about debt, deficit, and big bailouts cannot easily talk about what happened on his watch. Bill Clinton now reigns as the Democratic Party’s sun king and savior. But in office Clinton infuriated much of the constituency that had elected him, with his support for welfare reform, his perceived bungling of the effort to pass a national health-care plan, and the rise in his personal popularity that followed the Democrats’ historic loss of control in Congress. Just after Clinton was sworn in for his second term, this magazine published a cover story called “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.” It was by Peter Edelman, who had resigned as a senior administration official to protest the compromises Clinton made with Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in passing the welfare-reform bill. After Clinton left office, The Atlantic’s Jack Beatty wrote, “Listening to Bill Clinton—by turns, charming, shrewd, and wise—speak at the opening of his presidential library in Little Rock last week, brought home anew the gap between his gifts of brain, heart, and speech, and what he made of them as president. In this he compares unfavorably to George W. Bush.” Anything that bitter liberals have said about Barack Obama’s weakness and willingness to compromise was said more bitterly about the previous Democratic president.

The first George Bush agreed to raise taxes to balance the budget—and in so doing violated his “Read my lips!” promise to oppose all tax increases. This left conservatives feeling so betrayed that in his reelection campaign he faced first a strong primary challenge by Pat Buchanan and then the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot. Ronald Reagan spent the first year of his administration cutting taxes and the next seven agreeing to continued increases. Before him, Jimmy Carter so antagonized the left that its champion, Teddy Kennedy, waged a bitter primary fight against him and badly weakened him for the general election. You can take this list, too, as far back as you like.

To recognize this long history is not to defend any of the specific Obama-era policies that have most disappointed his original supporters. It is instead a reminder that every president takes infuriating steps away from “the base”—sometimes for reasons that look in retrospect like statesmanship (Nixon with China), strategic error (Johnson with Vietnam), or mere creation of political maneuvering room (Clinton’s “triangulation” after the Republican victories of 1994). It is easy to forget this in the exasperation that surrounds the incumbent of the moment. And this history is systematically forgotten every four years. After all, the question in each campaign is a different and simpler one. It is not “How many of his aspirations will this president fulfill, and what trade-offs must he make along the way?” but rather “Is he better or worse than that other person?”

There is one last certainty about assessing presidents, which is that their prospects for political survival and reelection are far more fluid and uncertain than we will think they were when we look back on them. With nearly 20 years’ hindsight, it is “obvious” to everyone that the Clinton administration’s “Hillarycare” plan was a political disaster. But when it was first presented to Congress, it was popular in opinion polls and was expected to pass. (Skeptical? In September 1993, just after the plan was unveiled, the veteran political analyst William Schneider wrote, “The reviews are in and the box office is terrific. President Clinton’s health care reform plan is a hit … The more people read and hear about the plan, the more they seem to like it.”) Two weeks after the plan’s release, the “Black Hawk Down” disaster occurred in Somalia, which led to the resignation of Clinton’s defense secretary and a cascade of problems for the administration. A year later, Newt Gingrich and his Republicans had taken control of the House, and the health-care-reform era was over for the Clintons. It is in comparison with the Clintons’ near-miss that Obama’s passage of a health-care bill—the first item of complaint by his critics—is considered such an achievement by veterans of other Democratic administrations.

Similarly, it is retrospectively obvious that Ronald Reagan was going to trounce Jimmy Carter. We know that he carried 44 states against Carter in 1980 and went on to a 49-state landslide against Walter Mondale four years later. But Carter—despite the American hostages in Iran, despite high gas prices and a bad economy, despite the primary challenge by Teddy Kennedy and the third-party challenge by John Anderson, despite everything—was neck-and-neck with Reagan, and ahead of him in some polls, until the last few days of the campaign.

Even at the time, it was obvious to everyone that Richard Nixon was going to trounce George McGovern in 1972. But less than six months before Election Day, Nixon felt uncertain enough to deploy the Watergate burglars to break into Democratic headquarters and try to gain an extra edge. George H. W. Bush, with an 89 percent approval rating just after the Gulf War, was so obviously headed toward reelection that he could barely take the callow Bill Clinton seriously. Four years later, with an Obama-esque 42 percent approval rating at the beginning of his reelection year, Clinton was obviously in trouble—but went on to an overwhelming win.

Whatever now seems obvious about Obama’s strengths and weaknesses, the future perception of his achievements and electoral fate will be subject to luck and to the adjustments he will make, or fail to make, in his own performance. This point too is obvious, except that the entire political-pundit industry rests on amnesia about its own long-failed record of looking ahead. Lawrence Summers, for two years the head of Obama’s economic council, made a similar argument about Obama’s health-care legislation. “If he is reelected, 40 years from now this will be like Medicare—an achievement that is part of the landscape and that people can’t imagine being without.” And if Obama should lose, Summers told me, and especially if conservative judges after his departure overturn some of its provisions, “then the health-care plan will be presented as a sign of ‘overreach’ and ‘hubris’ and the administration’s ‘inevitable’ failure.”

Obama was blessed by luck—and skill—in his campaign, but his administration had bad luck even before it began. “He ended up governing a country he never expected to govern,” Gary Hart, the former senator and presidential candidate, told me. “The crux of the Obama administration’s problems can be traced to October 2008,” with the accelerating financial collapse. “You have a president who in the last days of his campaign began to understand that he was going to have to make fundamental adjustments in everything he had intended. We’ll never know what an Obama presidency absent the economic catastrophe would have looked like.”

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. His latest book, China Airborne, will be published in May. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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