The Crisis Manager

It’s quite the time for big, thumb-sucking evaluations of the presidency, so far, of Barack Obama. Last month arrived Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker meditation on Obama’s losing battle with “post-partisanship.” There’s an even longer and much more sweeping piece by James Fallows up at The Atlantic, focusing on Obama’s likely place in history, which I’m still re-reading and trying to absorb.

At TNR, we are offered an excerpt from an upcoming book by Noam Scheiber on Obama’s economic policies, which will apparently be quite critical.

All three writers, from relatively progressive perspectives, are wrestling with the strategic and tactical decisions–and indecisions–of Obama’s first three years in office which seem particularly odd in retrospect, such as the persistence in pursuing compromise with a Republican Party determined to oppose him on every front; the constant shifts between a focus on economic recovery and a focus on deficit reduction; and the president’s own difficulty in rallying public support to his side. All struggle to place his undoubted accomplishments in the context of the defeats and lost opportunities he has suffered, and Lizza and Fallows, at least, are a bit ambivalent as to whether his recent move towards a more confident and confrontational posture reflect a long-planned “pivot” or just the maneuvers of a politician who is up for re-election and has exhausted every other approach.

On this last point, Scheiber is very clear in his own opinion: Obama acts when he has to, often quite brilliantly, but rarely before disaster seems imminent. Having documented the many occasions when the president held back and let warring factions of his advisors grab at the policymaking wheel, leading to a predictably erratic course, Scheiber thinks it’s just the way Obama operates, at least so far.

For voters contemplating whether he deserves a second term, the question is less and less one of policy or even worldview than of basic disposition. Throughout his political career, Obama has displayed an uncanny knack for responding to existential threats. He sharpened his message against Hillary Clinton in late November 2007, just in time to salvage the Iowa caucuses and block her coronation. He condemned his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, just before Wright’s racialist comments could doom his presidential hopes. Once in office, Obama led two last-minute counteroffensives to save health care reform. But, in every case, the adjustments didn’t come until the crisis was already at hand. His initial approach was too passive and too accommodating, and he stuck with it far too long.

Given the booby traps that await the next president—Iranian nukes, global financial turmoil—this habit seems dangerously risky. Sooner or later, Obama may encounter a crisis that can’t be reversed at the eleventh hour. Is Obama’s newfound boldness on the economy yet another last-minute course-correction? Or has he finally learned a deeper lesson? More than just a presidency may hinge on the answer.

But as Fallows points out again and again in his essay, perceptions of presidents vary enormously over time and in hindsight: every one of Obama’s recent predecessors had moments of seeming omnipotent, and moments of seeming hopelessly feckless. All of them, he stresses, at one point or another exasperated their party’s activist “base” and struck historians as unworthy successors to the great figures of the past. And even Scheiber’s clear indictment of Obama as an invariably passive crisis manager raises the question of how any president inheriting the situation he faced–not just the economic crisis, but the strange and historically unprecedented decision of the opposition party to deal with consecutive electoral debacles by moving away from the political center–would have been more “proactive” without clairvoyance.

You can read these and other evaluations of Obama and reach your own conclusions. I know some readers think it’s a simple story of a corporate-lackey “centrist” betraying his party, and a lot of people on the other side of the barricades who wouldn’t touch this magazine’s pages without oven mitts subscribe to equally simple, if diametrically opposed, narratives. But Fallows is probably right: we’d better read the next chapter before writing too many reviews.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.