The choice of presidents is often between the impulse to change everything and the impulse to defend something — between transformation and traditionalism.
Most presidents are swept by events into one position or the other. But the great ones get to choose.
President Barack Obama’s campaign rhetoric was that of change, and so he was painted as a transformational figure. He even played into this conception when he implicitly compared himself to Ronald Reagan — a transformational president — instead of Bill Clinton.
But in Obama’s campaign there was an undercurrent of incrementalism, even of traditionalism, that excited pundits like Christopher Buckley and Andrew Sullivan.
Buckley, the son of conservative icon William F. Buckley, wrote in endorsing him that, “having a first-class temperament and a first-class intellect, President Obama will … surely understand that traditional left-politics aren’t going to get us out of this pit we’ve dug for ourselves.”
The Atlantic’s Sullivan, one of Obama’s earliest and most passionate supporters, constructed an entire rationale for his candidacy that depended on his being a “Burkean conservative,” one who would, through force of conviction and by dint of wisdom, carry the country through crisis.
Of course, Obama’s first year has now betrayed that promise. It is clear that he is no sober-minded incrementalist, no pragmatic traditionalist.
Faced with an economic crisis and an electorate that was far more divided than he imagined, Obama abandoned the rational middle ground that was his for the taking.
If he had spent his first year closing the budget gap, steadying the economy, building consensus around popular initiatives, and addressing people’s real fears for the future, he would not be in the position he now occupies.
It is a measure of the misplaced grandiosity of his vision that he is only now talking about jobs, after already trying, and largely failing, to address climate change and health care.
If he had remembered tradition, Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead,” his presidency may have started differently. If, instead of seeking to fundamentally transform the way Americans think and act, he had given them confidence that his new America was only a more perfect version of the one they’d always known, he might have won their trust.
When a president abandons tradition and is unable to produce change, what is left? Who is he?
Some may argue that Obama does not know who he is, or what his presidency should look like. This is not quite right. Obama knows exactly who he is, and what he wants his presidency to be.
He is simply unable to tell the story of his policy in a way that makes Americans care.
He speaks, still, and he flails about with rhetoric, and even now he presses his way forward. But the country is no longer listening. He is no longer the hope for a new politics, because his actions were old politics — he took his advantage and blundered ahead with it until he lost it, like the Republicans before him and the Democrats before that.
Obama’s great flaw is his inability to persuasively tell any story but his own.
But the story of his presidency is still being written, just not by him, and it is one the country recognizes and has grown to loathe.
Reach Will at firstname.lastname@example.org