President Barack Obama concedes that he is not a perfect man or a perfect president, which is obviously true. Like the rest of us, he makes mistakes and misjudgments. But a new conventional wisdom is emerging that Obama's personality is to blame for pretty much all that's gone wrong in America over the past three-plus years.
This narrative holds that Obama's too aloof, too cerebral, too indecisive, too much of an observer, not enough of a participant; he doesn't hang out with members of Congress; he disdains hobnobbing with Washington insiders; he doesn't use his oratorical skills to sell his policies; inexplicably, he's let his enemies define him.
Maybe, according to this view, his failure can be explained by his confusion over his racial identity and his childhood insecurities, abandoned by his father and often absent from his mother.
This new conventional wisdom assumes that personality is destiny and thus the failure to fix the problems left behind by George W. Bush is the fault of Obama's flawed make-up; just when the United States needed a mix of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, it got this social misfit. On Sunday, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd summed up this viewpoint in a column entitled "Dreaming of a Superhero":
"The legendary speaker [Obama] who drew campaign crowds in the tens of thousands and inspired a dispirited nation ended up nonchalantly delegating to a pork-happy Congress, disdaining the bully pulpit, neglecting to do any L.B.J.-style grunt work with Congress and the American public, and ceding control of his narrative.
"As president, Obama has never felt the need to explain or sell his signature pieces of legislation -- the stimulus and health care bills -- or stanch the flow of false information from the other side."- Advertisement -
To unravel this mystery, Dowd references some recent books filled with pop-psychology about Obama, tracing his shortcomings back to his unusual childhood and his identity crisis as a mixed-race child, raised by a white family but seen as a black youth by American society.
Dowd cites Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss, who tracked down a number of Obama's old chums and girlfriends who offered their insights into his personality and his tendency to deliberate a lot before acting. Dowd writes...
"Obama's caution -- ingrained from a life of being deserted by his father and sometimes his mother, and of being, as he wrote to another girlfriend, 'caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me' -- has restrained him at times.
"In some ways, he's still finding himself, too absorbed to see what's not working. But the White House is a very hard place to go on a vision quest, especially with a storm brewing."
Dowd also cites A Nation of Wusses, a new book by Pennsylvania's former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, wondering how "the best communicator in campaign history" lost his touch. "The administration lost the communications war with disastrous consequences that played out on Election Day 2010," Rendell writes.
Dowd says, "The president had lofty dreams of playing the great convener and conciliator. But at a fund-raiser in Minneapolis, he admitted he's just another combatant in a capital full of Hatfields and McCoys. No compromises, just nihilism."
But is any of this analysis really true? Or is it just the classic desire of jaded Washington insiders to look for superficial character flaws in a politician to explain the systemic failings of U.S. politics, economy -- and the news media?
For instance, Dowd ignores the fact that Obama did take risks in office. He pushed for a $787 billion stimulus bill, which -- while not enough -- was probably all that he could get politically, especially with Republicans dragging their feet on Al Franken's Senate election in Minnesota, thus denying the Democrats the 60 votes needed to break a Republican Senate filibuster.
Obama took a big risk, too, in bailing out and reorganizing the auto industry, saving General Motors and Chrysler from a chaotic bankruptcy and dissolution. His health-care reform also was a daring political move in which Obama showed respect for Congress by not repeating the mistakes of the Clinton administration's top-down approach and instead heeding Capitol Hill's sense of the possible.
Obama worked hard to bring on board Republicans, like Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. Indeed, one of Obama's biggest political mistakes in 2009 was to waste so much time trying to woo Snowe, giving in to her incessant demands that she not be rushed on her health-care decision.
Those delays allowed the Right to organize Tea Party opposition and -- not surprisingly -- Snowe ultimately joined her Republican colleagues in filibustering the health-care legislation. Fearful of angering the GOP Right, she voted to keep the bill even from reaching the Senate floor. Her opposition also forced Obama to surrender the "public option" as the price for lining up the most conservative Democrats.