In the year since he was elected president, Barack Obama has revealed himself as one of the boldest leaders to occupy the Oval Office in the modern era.
In that same year, Obama also has revealed himself to be an innately self-protective, constantly calibrating and, in some surprising ways, supremely conventional politician.
So who is Barack Obama? The drama of this presidency — in sharp relief with Wednesday’s one-year anniversary of his 2008 triumph — revolves around how Obama navigates his own contradictions.
Obama turns out not to be a Bill Clinton-style centrist or a Paul Wellstone-style liberal. His plans for health care and his trillion-plus dollars in new spending have earned the ire of Rush Limbaugh for being too grandiose and of Arianna Huffington for not being grandiose enough.
Obama is the president as grand improvisationalist: a leader of epic ambitions who — when faced with a difficult choice — almost always pursues his aims with a pedestrian strategy and style.
This may be a shrewd approach to governing. But it manages almost by definition to defy and disappoint the huge — and wildly divergent — expectations Obama encouraged supporters to harbor for his presidency.
As the election anniversary approached, Obama several times in public remarks acknowledged the sense of letdown and pleaded for patience.
“‘Well, why haven’t you solved world hunger yet?’” Obama said in New Orleans the other day, mimicking the cries of critics. “‘Why — it’s been nine months. Why?’ You know? I never said it was going to be easy. What did I say during the campaign? I said change is hard. And big change is harder. And after the last nine months, you know I wasn’t kidding.”
Obama may not have promised change would be easy. But he did convey what now looks like a too-glib impression that he could unite opposites and reconcile contradictions by the power of personality — hard to do when his own personality has competing strands.
Obama has the soul of an ideologue. He wants to be a transformational president — unconfined by the limitations of conventional politics and determined to put a lasting mark on his era.
In his first year, he has presided over more new domestic spending than Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president, did in eight years. The “big bang” agenda he laid out earlier this year on health care, energy and financial regulation unmistakably signaled his ambition to vastly expand the role of government in American life.
But Obama also has the soul of an operative. He and his West Wing team — dominated at the top by people whose expertise is in the world of campaigns and Washington maneuvers — have proved to be far more familiar political types than they admit to themselves or than was forecast by his insurgent campaign and the expansive, at times almost messianic, rhetoric that powered it.
“What surprises me most is the loss of Barack Obama as movement leader,” Malika Saada Saar, a human rights organizer, said on POLITICO’s Arena forum.
As Obama’s campaign reached its climax, in Saar’s memory, it conjured up echoes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now that he has entered office, she finds that spirit missing: “During this time of economic decline, two raging wars and an uncertain future for so many Americans, we need a movement-leader president who can call forward our courage and relentlessly move us toward making the difficult policy changes that we need.” (continues here at POLITICO)