Whatever his ultimate, well-scrubbed narrative, the Obama experiment in learning-on-the-job defies the popular theory that great, overpowering personalities dictate their will, dominate eras and make history. Long past his definitive re-election win, this president exposes a paltry command over his own, his party's, or his country's destiny. His underwhelming electoral coattails evaporate weekly, like burnt candle wicks, thus jeopardizing Democratic Senate control.
In only weeks, Obama was ripped by legislative rejection of modest gun restraints, Benghazi unfurled administration blundering, the IRS went rogue on his watch, and now the revealing, impossible-to-flee NSA intrusions. The wary, ex-law teacher, with allegedly better self-esteem than his predecessor, turns out just as compliant as our most gullible president (or Reagan, for that matter). Remarkably, protean Obama sponged up the Bush Doctrine (belligerent, go-it-alone militarism), the Cheney Doctrine (spying uber alles , freedom demands tyranny), the Clinton Doctrine (pragmatic relativism), even the transparency-hating Nixon Doctrine (if a president does it . . .).
A curious path to greatness. Hell, Obama could make history as the first president impeached for the high crime of hypocrisy: winning office as "the anti-Bush," then governing as "the pro-Bush," with mixed results on health care, taxes, the environment, gay and civil rights. If Obama's fate recapitulates Clinton's, he'd be the first president impeached less for overt crimes against the state than zealous commitment to safeguarding entrenched powers far and wide.
The "Greatness' of Bush-Cheney?
No doubt, default to the "Great Man' theory re-emerges when explaining the last White House gang, able to ride one dramatic, terrorist episode into dead-end invasions and a slew of rights- and privacy-invading laws. Who but "great leaders" could so badly mangle the Constitution, erode our overseas standing, abandon a great city under siege, facilitate huge environmental fiascoes, then cap it all off by squandering trillions in national assets? Only masters of the universe, so the logic goes, could bunker-bust bomb the world's super power while resetting the Political Iniquity-Stupidity Scale (PISS) that Nixon established.
Turns out hidebound, pedestrian men, if sufficiently ruthless and blessed with good timing, can bring on horrendous devastation that will endure, like an insidious oil sludge, for decades. In magnitude alone, Bush-Cheney reinforces unholy greatness, especially when rewarded with unindicted, pensioned retirement. Memories being fluid, Bush credibility rises on cue, as the great Muslim Kenyan socialist normalizes criminal governance, legitimized with the hallowed imprimatur of liberalism. "If a president does it"
Though historians pooh-pooh 19th C. "great man" notions as personality cults, does not our celebration of heroism underlie universal values and moral frameworks? We admire formidable members of our own species at their best. Even writers who take macro views -- attentive to economic determinism, elitist, predatory capitalism, plus unbridgeable class struggles -- rarely divorce the American Revolution from Founders, the Civil War from Lincoln, Lee and Grant, the New Deal sans FDR, or the Iraqi fiasco detached from Bush's brain -- and what he didn't know, even know enough to question, before defaulting into the abyss.
History's Glow Worms
After all, however colored by simplified sound bites, what impacts our moral values more than heroic moments, episodes, and historic breakthroughs? Who doesn't glorify celebrated particulars that affirm whatever we today hold dear, whether narrow and racist, exploitative, belligerent militarism, or ennobling mandates for equality and justice, truly more level playing fields. While historians challenge fictions of intrepid loners commandeering history, great men like Charles de Gaulle keep the faith: "Nothing great will ever be achieved without great men, and men are great only if they are determined to be so." Or Winston Churchill, confident "victors write the history," immodestly quipped, "We are all worms, but I believe I am a glow-worm."
Famously, Carlyle defined the great man theory, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men," seconded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, "there is properly no history, only biography." Yet, by the convoluted 20th C. our greatest, unelected hero, Martin Luther King, disagreed, "We are not makers of history. We are made by history." And wise voices, like John Maynard Keynes, posited the larger variables of great ideas and paradigms determining the long haul of history, not personality cults.
The Future of Lesser Leaders
Today few reliable observers anticipate more than quick fixes, if that, over the next three years. Really, what great ideas (vs. soaring rhetoric) remain within grasp that could pole-vault Obama into a shaper of history? This CEO-manager concedes his presidency a bold success if at his departure the country's a tad better shape than when inaugurated. Since Obama never leveraged all his political capital, nor developed mastery over Congress, his lower than average ultimate rankings will disappoint resolute admirers. Greatness by definition challenges the status quo, especially when you promised systemic reform. Do we know today what elevating principles Obama honors, or what hills, if any, he'd die on? No risk-taking, no ambitious gambles, no chance for greatness.
Like every president since FDR, Obama works overtime to keep American capitalism from imploding. By and large, that's happening, despite painful howls from the left and rightwing propaganda Obama is anti-big business and anti-America. That bucket of Tea Party manure outlived all Republican usefulness, backfiring with Obama's easy re-election victory. And yet the narrative of history is already being distorted by a legion of well-funded, rightwing hacks, not probably offset by less strident, Democratic apologists. Judging by the tsunami of unending PR slander by the right, with Birther nonsense rearing its ugly head again, Obama won't bask in the post-White House glory awarded Bill Clinton, the last "great man" of popular history. Oh, the horror.