“Obama, Explained” Condensed

Posted on February 10, 2012 by

James Fallows – a disciplined and experienced political observer – assesses the Obama presidency in the March issue of Atlantic.

Although the piece is long and repetitive, he makes important points about the president’s character and performance.

Here’s the link and highlights (the cover graphic pictured here is from a previous issue of the magazine):

Having seen a number of presidencies unfold, and some unravel, I am fully aware of how difficult it is to assess them in real time. What I feel I’ve learned about Obama is that he was unready for the presidency and temperamentally unsuited to it in many ways. Yet the conjunction of right-wing hostility to his programs and to his very presence in office, with left-wing disappointment in his economic record and despair about his apparent inability to fight Republicans on their own terms, led to an underappreciation of his skills and accomplishments…

Yet the test for presidents is not where they begin but how fast they learn and where they end up. Not even FDR was FDR at the start. The evidence is that Obama is learning fast to use the tools of office. Whether he is learning fast enough to have a chance to apply these skills in a second term—well, we’ll reconvene next year.

[Obama’s] misjudgments were the result of his own inexperience—and his reliance on a staff whose own formative experiences were mainly from the Clinton years and who were refighting some of those battles under different circumstances. But through the past year, his “decision muscle” appears to have developed. He has continued to make big strategic calls—from authorizing the assault on Osama bin Laden to defying the Republicans over the payroll-tax holiday—and most have gone his way.

…Obama also shaped his luck by being shrewd, in three significant ways. First, according to this view, he always kept his eye on what mattered most, namely avoiding another recession—and compromised and backtracked only when, in his assessment, the alternative would have been a greater economic risk.  Next, he absorbed pummeling by Republicans not so much because he was weak or unsuspecting as because he recognized problems the over-reaching opposition was creating for itself, much as he had during the 2008 primaries (and much as Bill Clinton had in 1995). And finally, that while like all presidents he came in unprepared, he adjusted as fast as anyone could have expected and was increasingly in control of events as time went on.

If Barack Obama loses this fall, he will forever seem a disappointment: a symbolically important but accidental figure who raised hopes he could not fulfill and met difficulties he did not know how to surmount.… If he is reelected, he will have a chance to solidify what he has accomplished and, more important, build on what he has learned.

Comments (2)


  1. John Connolly says:

    Fallows provides a fair and canny reading on Obama as President so far. And it is important amid the blood, agony and flames of fury and disappointment to discern the President’s very real accomplishments.
    I will read the entire article to see if he truly appreciates the the full array of keystone roadblocks to this Presidency:
    – The searing vein of racism that pulses through every Republican and Tea Party sneer of disrespect and hatred toward President Obama; racism which has re-ignited and provided vicious accelerant to the long ill-cherished tradition of smug Know Nothingism in American politics, as well as the blind fury against “socialism” real and imagined.
    –As well, I will be interested in seeing if Fallows gives proper weight to the obdurate refusal of the Republican House to not only not cooperate with the President, but offer practically no proposals whatsoever to address the near-Depression we’re experiencing.
    –And the Dems ought not get off scot-free either. The lack of party discipline when the Dems had overwhelming House and Senate majorities (stifling Obama’s recovery proposals) I believe led directly to their inability to retain the House in 2010.
    –I think that permitting the legislative debate over healthcare reform to drag on for an entire year (producing an overly-complex, corporate-servile plan) was a huge mistake that drained the drama and vitality from the rest of the Dems’ reform and recovery program, which for a time had the Republicans on the ropes and The Right on the run.

    If President Obama’s toughness and smarts (and money) wins a second term, he’ll have to really pour it on in policy and politics in 2014-15 in order to achieve the Presidential greatness of which he is capable.

  2. Rod Bradley says:

    John, I think your comments are both astute and right on.

    I am harsher in my assessment of his smarts in that I look more to core conviction and vision which are the marks of great leaders who transform societies in a positive way. I believe he is learning to manipulate political chess playing more skillfully, but I think he will have to discover something beyond that, some core conviction and knowledge of who and what he stands for to be capable of Presidential greatness. To me he is far too Clintonesque in too many ways in terms of policy cleverness — but without the connecting magic. Bright yes, Harvard bright, but aloof and a bit elitist at heart. FDR while elite, really did side with the little guy out of deep conviction, I think. Barack Obama does not seem to have that innate feel for the really hurting from what I’ve witnessed.

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