10.09.11

Obama's Shrinking Presidency

Even as Republicans accuse the president of acting like a dictator, Obama keeps insisting he's powerless to create instant change. Lee Siegel on why they're both right.

It comes out of the mouths of President Obama and his aides like a mantra: The president can’t work miracles. One man can’t do it all. Don’t expect change overnight. The unprecedented president once vowed and wowed, promising to treat the American people like adults and speak truth to the base of his power. Now, admirably and correctly, he speaks the truth about the limitations of his office. And his supporters react with disgust and despair.

Yet the messianic figure, who promised to lead the country out of the darkness of Bush’s imperial presidency, has kept stressing his weakness. Press Secretary Jay Carney: the president has “the biggest megaphone there is in politics, but it doesn’t have the reach it once had.” Obama to Hispanic leaders last week: “I think there’s been a great disservice done to the cause of getting the Dream Act passed and getting comprehensive immigration passed by perpetrating the notion that somehow, by myself, I can go and do these things. It’s just not true.” Obama on immigration at a town-hall meeting at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., last April: “I can’t solve this problem by myself.” Obama, around the same time, speaking to a group of climate-change activists at the White House: “I can’t do this alone.” Obama, last November: “The responsibilities of this office are so enormous … sometimes we lose track of the ways that we connected with folks that got us here in the first place.” Obama, at a press conference in April 2009, "I can't press a button and have the banks do what I want, or turn on a switch and Congress falls in line." Obama, speaking at the United Nations in September 2009: “[The world] cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.” Obama, two years ago, on the military overthrow of the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras:  “[I] can’t push a button and suddenly reinstate Mr. Zelaya.” Obama, in November 2008, shortly after he was elected: “I’m not a miracle worker.” Sometimes it seems as the president is passing the buck back to the people who elected him.

It’s striking to contrast this incessant declaration of relative powerlessness with FDR, who had to call a press conference at one point—after accusations that he tried to pack the Supreme Court—in order to promise the country that “A. I have no inclination to be a dictator. B. I have none of the qualifications which would make me a successful dictator.” Such reassurance was delivered on the occasion of a bill intended merely to expand the White House staff.

Obama’s by-now characteristically paternal reminder of reality is yet another instance of what is becoming his presidency’s comi-tragic flaw. There is a constant disjunction between political tact and political candor. The country needs to believe it is guided by a firm hand that is confident it will prevail and bring victory. Yet Obama keeps firmly and confidently declaring that he cannot prevail all by himself, and that victory is not at all certain.

To be sure, the almost surreal expectations of magical social and political transformation that were fueled by Obama’s election—expectations roused by both him and his supporters—needed to be tamped down in order to avoid the perception of constant failure. But by now, the failures—the humiliations by the opposition, the broken promises, Obama’s withdrawals and aloofness—have seemed so constant that, in lieu of concrete advances, some more sober version of the high expectations of yore might lift morale. But the president—again, admirably and correctly—must press his public lesson on the limitations of executive power. He must stress his weakness in the face of circumstances too overwhelming for the redress of one man over and over again.

Yet when he does assert the power of his office, as in the case of Libya, he is excoriated by the very people who lament that he does not assert the power of his office. At the same time, his professions of weakness seem directed just as much toward his rabid opposition as to his demanding supporters. No matter what he does to assure the former of the limitations of his office, they keep accusing him of dictatorial ambitions. And no matter what he does to remind the latter of the nature of political realty, they keep accusing him of not being ambitious enough.

Obama keeps firmly and confidently declaring that he cannot prevail all by himself, and that victory is not at all certain.

We live in a time when people across the political spectrum crave single-figure authority but only seem to trust crowd-sourced authority. Consider the Wall Street protesters. Their very existence makes your spirit soar even as their weak, leaderless structure causes it to sink. Consider the GOP, which is caught in the teeth of the conflict between single-figure and crowd-sourced authority. The Republicans are desperate for a strong, magnetic, plausible figure to lead them, but the right-wing will trust only candidates who toe their collective line.

Keen intellect that he is, Obama has always grasped this growing paradox in American politics. During his last presidential campaign, he balanced a careful crafting of his single-figure mystique with avowals of his crowd-sourced legitimacy. Obama has been drawing down expectations and calling on the American people to help him since before he was elected president. He is absolutely right about the limitations of his office. But accuracy is not the same thing as truth. The truth is that the buck really does stop with him. The “people” have their limitations, too.