A recent issue of the New Republic had Elizabeth Warren on the cover with the headline “Hillary’s Nightmare?” It was one of a spate of such stories, all of them saying that the Democratic Party was moving to the left (and away from Hillary Clinton and, yes, Barack Obama), to which I, in uncharacteristic silence, vowed a solemn, “Oh, no, not again.” Warren, like the old saying about second marriages, could well be the triumph of hope over experience.
Like Obama, before fate and adulation took him to the presidency, Warren is a first-term senator. Like Obama, she has had little involvement in foreign policy — not with Iran, Syria, Israel, Palestine or that (Groucho) Marxian tussle over a hunk of rocks in the East China Sea.
Like Obama at the same stage, Warren has never run a large organization. She has never been a chief executive or, more to the point, the governor of a state — the usual steppingstone to the White House. She has never had to work with a legislature — not just be part of one — coaxing, threatening, seducing and, after the bill is signed into law, abandoning. In other words, she is something of an unknown. Correction: She is almost totally an unknown.
As luck would have it, the categories listed above are precisely where Obama has failed. He is a notorious non-schmoozer, a man so lacking in the requisite neuroses that he does not need the constant approval of other politicians, and he eschews the always-sincere pats on the back that are the bitcoins of politics. The president may be the nation’s preeminent politician, but he is not much good at politics.
Obama’s lack of executive experience has been both telling and, maybe, crippling. The rollout of Obamacare has been the Edsel of our times (that’s the car line Ford introduced in 1958 and ignominiously withdrew in 1960). Obamacare was supposed to be the president’s signal accomplishment — and one day it may well be. But can you imagine the chief executive of a major company bringing his most important product to market the way Obama has done with this program? Can you imagine a chief executive being so surprised by the belly-flop the program took in its first week? Can you imagine no one — not a single person — being fired as a result? Not possible.
Next, foreign policy. Here we get to Obama’s most consequential failing. By so bollixing his approach to Syria, he has made the world less safe. The “hundreds of children” killed by poison gas that the president cited when he said he would make Bashar al-Assad pay for his crimes are dead because Assad presumed Obama would do nothing. This sheer waste of lives as well as American prestige is no small matter. The Iranians, the Chinese and others have taken the measure of the man. He blurs “red lines.” He has lost authority.
These are areas of concern. They do not represent the totality of the Obama presidency. He has done pretty well with the awful economic hand dealt him, and he has wound down two wars, the one in Iraq maybe precipitously. And the very passage of Obamacare — never mind its implementation — is no minor achievement. But his inexperience has mattered. It has cost lives. It has driven a much-needed health insurance plan off the road and into a bog. Experience isn’t everything — Lincoln didn’t have much — but it sure helps.
My vow regarding Warren may turn out to be as firm as the one I make daily regarding Haagen-Dazs “chocolate dark chocolate” ice cream bars (anyway, she’s yet to declare her interest). Unlike Obama, she exudes passion and conviction. She wants to rein in Wall Street, narrow the obscene gap between rich and poor and restore middle-class vitality. Nothing wrong with any of that.
In contrast, the presumed frontrunner for the nomination, Clinton, remains enveloped in a fog of murkiness. She’d be the first woman president. But so would Warren. Clinton has had a varied career — she’s even been a senator, remember? — but she still needs to define herself. She traveled precisely 956,733 miles as secretary of state but never got close to an essential achievement.
The boomlet for Warren shows a yearning for a revival of muscular liberalism. But the Obamacare mess has even some liberals — the editor of the aforementioned New Republic, for instance — wondering if this advance in liberalism hasn’t in fact set the movement back. To the Democratic left, Warren’s heat is the remedy for Obama’s cool. To the rest of the country, she might look like Obama all over again.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.