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Barack Obama: A leader without a cause

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Last month, no American soldiers were killed in Iraq. Last month, the unemployment rate dipped a bit, the stock market ended the year up, the financial system did not crater, Detroit's Big Three began to get a pulse -- and yet a consensus started to form that Barack Obama, who is either responsible for or merely presided over all this good stuff, is a failure.

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What's more, the consensus came supported by numbers. The polls, according to Rasmussen Reports, showed the president's approval rating dropping two points in December while his disapproval rating gained a point. Obama began 2009 with 43 percent of Americans strongly approving of his performance and ended it with 26 percent feeling that way. Any way you measure the polls, Obama did not have a good year.

On the left, the president is being pummeled for health-care legislation that does not include a public option and that has not dispatched insurance executives to Guantanamo. On the right, he is being pummeled for socializing the economy, establishing death panels and allowing maniacal Nigerians to load their Calvins with boom-boom and fly into peaceful Detroit. It's a cartoon.

In foreign policy, Obama has sorely disappointed his fans on the left for escalating the war in Afghanistan and on the right for not escalating it enough. Guantanamo, which he vowed to close, is still open. He supports gay rights, but don't ask and don't tell about "don't ask, don't tell." He zigs, he zags. Change! Hope! But not much of the former and little of the latter.

To some, he's weak on the environment. To others, he's too strong on the environment. He is camouflaged in the incomprehensible, leaving no (carbon) footprint and quixotically tilting at energy-producing windmills. He confers too much with our allies, bows when he should shake and has not brought peace to the Middle East -- as, you will remember, George W. Bush did.

Much of this critique is asinine. If the Republican Party had its way -- and God sees to it that it doesn't -- the country would by now have reverted to the barter system and the unemployment rate would be around 25 percent. The GOP economic program simply does not exist, and even Bush knew this. When push came to shove, he tossed his ideology overboard and used government money to bail out financial institutions.

Still, the reason the GOP criticisms have started to stick is that Obama can be made into anything his critics want. He is a lean man of ideological clay who has let others mold his image. His bottom line is forever on the move. It's not that he's not good or smart; it's rather that in a political universe ruled by ideological yellers, he lacks both an ideology and the pipes.

The White House faces a major political problem. Obama's first year was not a bad one -- and yet he suffered. The coming year threatens to be much worse. Fatalities are going to increase in Afghanistan. Unemployment could fester. The debt is going to increase, and all over the country, state and municipal governments are going to go broke and look to Washington for help. The land will roil with anger, and Mr. Cool in the White House is not up to FDR-like fireside chats. He was born to blog.

Journalists like to believe that if they are getting criticism from both sides of the story, they must be doing something right. This is not true for journalists -- they may actually have gotten the story doubly wrong -- and it is certainly not true for political figures. In Obama's case, his misfortune is to be a leader without a cause.

He wanted a health-care bill. Why? To cover the uncovered. Maybe. To rein in the insurance companies. Maybe. To lower costs. Maybe. What mattered most was getting a bill, any bill. This is not a cause. It's a notch on a belt.

Obama could be a great president. He has already achieved much -- possibly saving the country from financial ruin, salvaging the auto industry, getting some sort of health-care reform. Possibly, possibly. Yet his numbers sink as his achievements rise. He is the Johnny Appleseed of cognitive dissonance, so utterly detached that when he wins it seems to be only for himself. Pollsters measure him but poets have described him. William Butler Yeats got it down years ago: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

cohenr@washpost.com


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