Evaluating Obama From 10,000 Feet

Pundits once again step back to weigh his approach to the presidency

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Preparations for midterms are heating up and the post-health care political agenda is taking shape. Commentators are using the moment to perform one of their occasional check-ins on the presidential narrative. On the macroscopic view, how does Obama approach the presidency, and is his approach working? Opinion is divided.

  • 'Secrets of Obama's Underappreciated Success'  Mark Halperin's somewhat glowing Time piece argues that Obama "is a master of personnel decisions," and that both Rahm Emanuel and the vice-president Joe Biden, despite controversy here and there, were excellent picks. "It's easy to forget what circumstances could be like, what problems Obama might have encountered"--Halperin reminds readers of the Clinton fiascos.
... beyond health care, Obama acted decisively to stop the world from going into economic depression, after inheriting a mess from his predecessor. Quibble all you wish about the dimensions of the stimulus law or the administration of the TARP or the Detroit bailout, but the actions taken were professionally handled, apparently necessary, and, so far, constructive.
  • Issues with Ideology: Big Government  The Financial Times' Clive Crook says low polling numbers suggest "there is more to the Democrats' unpopularity than economic discontent," and reveal some "scepticism over Mr. Obama's wider approach." The approach, as he sees it (though Obama "has yet to come clean about that choice") involves a fundamental shift leftwards, with "permanently higher public spending and permanently higher taxes." Crook lays out one possible scenario: the Democrats get crushed in 2010, move back towards the center, and Obama cleans up in 2012, having "allowed voters to tame his own party."
  • Not Ideology, but Strategy, counters Fred Hiatt in The Washington Post. "My theory: The culprit is less ideology than Obama's fidelity to a strategy he can't, for tactical reasons, publicly acknowledge. Given the hand he was dealt, the evidence suggests he resolved that he had to choose only one domestic and one foreign objective for his first two years in office." He essentially chose health care and Iran as his top priorities, and had to push everything else (including closing Guantanamo) back. But he couldn't say this: "You don't tell allies, whether gay rights groups or India, that they've slipped down your priority list." Hiatt's not sure this strategy is working abroad, but it seems to be "paying off" with health care reform and financial reform. "It's hard not to admire Obama's focus," he concludes, despite the costs being borne by "those at the back of the line," priority-wise.
  • Not Ideology, but Communication  The New York Times' John Harwood points out that Obama's own self-criticism "tracks" with what we're seeing in the polls. Obama "faults his inability to connect with ordinary Americans, not his ideology or presidential judgment."
  • Need New Strategy to Deal with Opposition's Insanity  Economist blogger Brad DeLong thinks Obama's "strategy ... has been simple," involving "rule from the sensible, bipartisan, technocratic, consensus center," personnel of "smart centrist," etc. The strategy is failing, he said, the first reason being that "the Republicans are all insane--not just the Republican right, not just the Republican center, but the left wing of the Republican Party as well." He also thinks "the press is not cooperating" and there was a problem with "'consensus' policies on the economy [not being] 'technocratic.'" The conclusion: "President Obama needs to chart a different course for the country's sake. But what?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.