Don't expect Obama to be Superman

By Paul Starobin
Friday, June 11, 2010

Why can't President Obama stop the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Why can't he get the Israelis and Palestinians to stop squabbling and make peace? Why can't he get the Europeans to contribute more troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan? Why can't he forge a global treaty to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases?

Why can't he . . . well, you get the point. Obama, it turns out, is not Superman. In (unhappy) truth, no president is, no matter how politically gifted and no matter how many people, in this country and around the world, root for his success.

Americans like to read politics and history as a tale of the Great Man -- they are eager subscribers to the Hercules myth of how the world works. Obama in particular plays to this seductive but fanciful notion. In electing him president in 2008, Americans seemed to think that "yes, we can" would become, almost overnight, "and so we have done," with a charmed figure -- all the more so for his astonishingly rapid rise to the top -- replacing a spent one, the stoop-shouldered George W. Bush.

Liberal partisans were quick to offer parallels between Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- the most successful and beloved president of the 20th century, with an unapologetic faith in activist government. FDR, though, was not a magician either. It took an economy on war footing to end the Great Depression -- and it took Stalin's Red Army to mete out a lethal blow to the Nazis, on the icy grounds of Stalingrad.

As for conservatives prone to be skeptical of Obama, they might be reminded that the world was not exactly plastic to the touch of Ronald Reagan, their model of a heroic leader. Reagan's efforts to broker a peace in Lebanon -- occupied by Palestinian guerrillas and the Israeli army, among other combatants -- ended in disaster, with the suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983 eventually leading to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country (which remains fractious and prone to violence, 27 years later).

Americans did not have this sort of outsized expectation of their presidents in the 19th century -- not even of Abraham Lincoln, whose heroic casting came after his death by an assassin's hand. The Hercules myth, rather, is of more recent vintage, tied to America's rise as the single greatest power on the planet. It is, in a way, a child's fantasy -- this innocent faith in masters of the universe, perfectly captured in Malia Obama's question to her father concerning the oil spill: "Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?"

The short and simple answer to that question is that some problems elude even the most powerful people: Not even Daddy has a magic wand. The longer, more complicated answer is that the leaders of Great Powers, to paraphrase Otto von Bismarck, do not create the currents of history -- they do their best to "steer with more or less skill and experience."

Those who may seek to do us harm are never as easy to manage as we might imagine; thus the unenviable choices Obama faces with regard to squelching Iran's nuclear program. And even our friends often balk at our requests, as Obama discovered when he asked the Israelis to freeze their settlements -- and had to swallow the "nope, we don't want to," that came in reply.

Obama, fairly enough, is reaping what he sowed in assigning himself an impossible mission as a global savior. But Americans are his culpable enablers. Few people want to hear this, but he's doing the best he can, considering the difficult circumstances that he and the nation face. And what he needs most from the public is a quality that distinguishes adults from children: patience.

Or, put another way: America, grow up!

Paul Starobin, a staff correspondent for National Journal and a contributing editor to the Atlantic, is the author of "Five Roads to the Future: Power in the Next Global Age."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company