President Obama, Pragmatist in Chief

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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.

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