Where he has fallen short of his leadership promise, however, is by failing to tell the hard truths (Romney is not better) and making good on his promise to change the way business is done in Washington.
It began when he broke his pledge to limit his campaign spending and rely on public financing rather than big donations from Wall Street and Hollywood. It continued with his decision not to veto a supplemental appropriations bill that he inherited, which was larded with congressional pork. It took root when he failed to embrace the recommendation of his own deficit-reduction commission out of fear that its budget cuts would alienate key Democratic constituencies. And it manifests itself in the administration’s refusal to aggressively defend its legislative achievements in the face of voter disenchantment and relentless Republican attacks.
Steven Pearlstein is a Pulitzer Prize-winning business and economics columnist at The Washington Post.
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With the electoral drubbing that his party took in November 2010 and the sharp decline in his own poll numbers, Obama stopped being a leader with a passion for a larger purpose outside of himself. He became just another politician focused on his own reelection, pandering to the public and key constituencies, refusing to come clean about the sacrifices that would be required while demonizing Republicans with the same relentless advertising based on exaggeration and half-truths that Republicans had used so successfully against him.
There was a lot of truth and wisdom in what Joe Biden said in his acceptance speech the other night, but there was one line he surely knew was not true — that in the Obama White House, politics is the last thing to be considered in policy decisions. It was one of those white lies that elected officials like to tell and nobody really believes, but the dramatic sincerity with which it was delivered was a good indication that the Obama team is now determined simply to win at the Washington game rather than change it.
The clever conceit behind this strategy is that this is the only viable one for winning reelection — and that after November, Obama will be free to return to his vision and demonstrate the leadership of which he is capable.
On the first point, my guess is that sticking to a leadership strategy based on authenticity, core values and courageous truth-telling would have been the better antidote to 8 percent unemployment and voter cynicism. It also would have been a surer way to expose that Mitt Romney is smaller than the job he aspires to.
On the second, I’d be skeptical that anyone who wins office by playing the old Washington political game will have the power — let alone the instinct — to change it.