The man in the Oval Office right now is not Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. Given the constant references to these former presidents amid the post-debt deal crescendo of hand-wringing from supporters, criticism from opponents and commentary from the chattering class, a casual observer could easily be confused.
But actually, it’s Barack Obama. And here’s the dirty little secret: He’s governing exactly like he said he would.
Going back to the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that thrust him into national prominence, and throughout the 2007-2008 presidential campaign marathon, Obama consistently wrapped himself around one big idea: We don’t have to settle for a toxic culture in Washington that ignores the entrenched problems strangling the country’s long-term economic competitiveness and sapping our national spirit.
He conveyed a refreshing confidence and a yes-we-can optimism about tackling these problems, without having to resort to a slash-and-burn politics.
Using this post-partisan strategy, he built a coalition that included independents and moderate Republicans. Obama won the presidency with 53 percent of the national vote, the highest percentage in two decades. He then galvanized Washington to stave off a Great Depression, pass historic health care reform and change the rules for lobbying and Wall Street.
He has used the bully pulpit to chide and exhort congressional Republicans, but he has never demonized them.
In other words, a straight line can be drawn from the cradle of his national political career through the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency. History would dictate that a narrative should be seen in the news and reflected in public opinion, about the man, his approach and his impact.
Yet, we mostly hear what people want Obama to be. Some, going back to that speech in 2004, have never stopped wanting him to be a left-wing Reagan — unabashedly liberal and the real-life version of Jed Bartlett of “West Wing.”.
Others want him to be more like a combative Clinton — clobbering Republicans and hardballing them to within an inch of their lives.
Still others want to establish a totally different narrative about Obama —that of a diffident, Carter-like egghead, out of touch with ordinary Americans, who gets driven from office after one miserable term.
During the 2008 campaign, when Hillary Clinton lingered and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tightened the gap, nervous supporters and bleating pundits demanded that Obama ditch the optimistic persona and get tough.
But it’s never been an act. It’s who he is. After seven years of exposure to him, you would think more people would accept that.
Of course, one challenge preventing the development of this narrative about a serious president, determined to tackle our nation’s toughest challenges while rejecting partisan warfare, is that Obama himself refuses to embrace it.
While it provokes almost hysterical derision in some quarters, he and his team avoid the myth-making staging of the presidency that his predecessors relied on. There are no “Mission Accomplished” banners, no grand photo ops, no “studying at the knee of Mike Deaver,” as Obama’s communications director Dan Pfeiffer once put it.
But the portrait of Obama that is consistent with the man revealed since that 2004 speech, is that there is a time for touting accomplishments; for contrasting yourself with your opponents, and for telling a story about your presidency that people can grab onto. That time is the campaign.
Governing, according to this president, is the time for, well, governing. Doing otherwise now would be inconsistent with the man — as well as counterfactual to the narrative.
Yes, he could have allowed the nation to default in an effort to outmaneuver the Republicans — and hope that Washington pundits would declare him the winner.
Yes, he could adopt a more kamikaze-like approach to future negotiations with Congress.
Yes, he could treat governing as a permanent campaign, rhetorically stitching together a bumper-sticker narrative that sums up his vision and his collective policy aims.
But those pining away for him to change his ways will likely have to keep pining. Because following the playbook of those who came before him is not why Obama ran for president. It’s also exactly why many of his supporters — including some who now pose indignation — gravitated toward him in the first place.
His presidency hasn’t been perfect. But every day of it up till now has been the fulfillment of the promise of the kind of president he always said he would be: a practical problem solver untethered to the legacy of petty fights and image-first tactics, which seemed to be hindering any resolution of our biggest challenges.
On Election Day next year, the Obama narrative will finally be accepted, and a verdict on it will likely be rendered.
If he loses, the pundits, disappointed loyalists and maybe even long-view historians will conclude Obama was well-intentioned but naïve — and his inability to grasp the ways of Washington cost him a second term.
If he wins, you can start the countdown until the critics of some future president will ask, “Why isn’t he doing it the way Obama did?”
Sean Smith teaches on media, politics and international relations at Yale University. He is the director of Capstone Projects at Yale’s Jackson Institute on global affairs. He served as assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration.
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