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Mind the Gap

Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on finding common ground politically, spiritually and culturally.

President Obama, Pragmatist in Chief

obama speech 

Most everyone agrees that this upcoming presidential election will be one of the closest in history. But where’s all the enthusiasm we saw in 2008? Who popped the balloon? The answer is sitting in the White House and asking you for a second term.

In 2008, then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama rode a wave of unbridled enthusiasm and optimism into the Oval Office. His lofty rhetoric inspired hundreds of thousands of people who had previously felt alienated by the political process to knock on doors, work in phone banks, and, most importantly, show up to vote.

But ask many of those once enthusiastic Obama supporters what they think of the President four years later, and you’ll likely get a lukewarm opinion. The liberal base has a laundry list of complaints that range from his lackadaisical record on the environment to health care reform that doesn’t get close enough to the single-payer plan they really want. Many think that he’s spent the last three years falling short on a lot of things they were excited about electing him to accomplish.

Paul Glastris wrote about this phenomenon in the March/April 2012 issue of Washington Monthly, arguing that when you look at Obama’s stat sheet, he’s actually accomplished quite a bit in a short period of time. Glastris breaks down 50 of Obama’s top achievements, pointing out that many of them were accomplished despite contentious battles with a remarkably hostile and uncooperative GOP.  In summing up Obama’s first three years, Glastris writes, “Obama has gotten more done than any president since LBJ.”

So where’s the love?

It appears that Obama has an image problem on his hands—one that he helped create back in 2008. Simply put, when you posture yourself as a savior, people expect you to save them in dramatic fashion. Many liberals believed in 2008 that Obama was the second coming of FDR, and that his presidency would be the dawn of a great liberal age in American politics. The enthusiasm that image generated was exactly what Obama needed to energize a previously stagnant electorate and overcome the more experienced John McCain. You can’t blame Obama for taking advantage of that, even if he knew it was an image he had no intention of living up to. You win presidential elections by defining yourself as larger-than-life and capable of great things, not as a calculating pragmatist (which is what Obama really is). The risk, though, is that you paint yourself into a corner and potentially compromise your chances for a second term once the jig is up.

A perfect example of Obama’s pragmatic nature in practice is his predilection for using unmanned military drones against terrorists. He appeased antiwar activists by following through on his campaign promise to effectively end America’s full-time commitment in Iraq, and he continues to work toward a similar end in Afghanistan. But when it comes to the ubiquitous “War on Terror,” among other things, Obama has perpetuated that conflict by expanding the use of secret ops and tactics that arguably make him equally as hawkish as George W. Bush. He’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a warrior-president all rolled into one. How’s that for a Contradiction in Chief?

As far as it relates to the election, Obama’s defense-minded pragmatism is a twin-edged sword. While it’s likely that many of his supporters from 2008 won’t be motivated to actively support someone they see as two-faced, or worse—a liar, Obama has insulated himself from the classic Republican-on-Democrat attack of being weak on defense. For once, it’s the Democrat who can claim a defensive resume stronger than that of his Republican opponent. That, along with Mitt Romney’s selection of ultraconservative Paul Ryan as his running mate, might just pull independent voters into Obama’s column, but it remains to be seen if they will be enough to make up for the enthusiastic liberal support he’s stymied by showing his true pragmatic colors.

Follow Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on Twitter: @cwwilliams

Image by jamesomalley, licensed under Creative Commons.