The Crashing Chariot of Our Young Phaethon

by Victor Davis Hanson

Suddenly there are all sorts of expressions of worry and angst among the Left concerning President Obama’s leadership style and effectiveness — from not being on top of the facts and a sort of listless distracted style, to his serial canned sermons and lack of fire in the belly on issues of concern. These are legitimate worries, inasmuch as the Left assumed that Obama was a once-in-a-lifetime dream candidate who could force a progressive agenda upon a reluctant and largely conservative populace, given his charisma, youth, post-racial profile, landmark candidacy, and teleprompted eloquence. But when an inexperienced Phaethon takes over the reins, his out-of-control steeds can scorch far more than himself. So the problem is that Obama is now inextricably tied up in progressive politics: Just as liberalism once soared with him in 2008 as a reaction to the Wall Street/Freddie/Fannie meltdown, so too it may nosedive with him in 2011–12, a thought that is beginning to haunt his erstwhile supporters. One symptom of this concern is a sort of escapism: The more Obama’s leftism turns off the electorate, the more his former adherents fault him for not being left enough — an attempt to explain to others both why they have lost heart in Obama, and why their leftism is not catching on with the country at large.

But in some sense Obama is doing about as well as might any two-year Senate veteran without any experience in executive governance who had never really held a full-time position, much less a job in the private sector, alternating instead between state government, part-time teaching, and grant-subsidized community organizing. Obama himself feared as much, when, as a recently elected senator, he early on quashed all rumors that he might run for the presidency by admission that his constituents did not vote for him simply to begin running for the presidency rather than mastering the nature of being a senator. In his own early memoir writing, he has hinted that he was a metaphorical vessel into which others poured their own aspirations. 

In truth, Obama naturally assumed that he would be a sort of gilded public megaphone for progressive causes, just as he had when he voted present habitually in the Illinois legislature, did little in the Senate, and had an unimpressive record as a community organizer. As president, I think he thought the job was mostly reminding Americans that “Bush did it,” giving soaring “this is the moment,” “hope and change” speeches, assuring the fainting of the audience that medical help was standing by, adding in the requisite emphases (“make no mistake about,” “let’s be honest about,” “let me be perfectly clear”), while outsourcing solutions to left-leaning technocrats from government and academia. The ceremonial aspects and rhetorical duties of the office are more what interested him; not the mundane political horse-trading and attention to policy detail, much less the thankless and stressful job of hitting the stump to make the case for statism — in a climate in which the EU, blue-state America, and his former economic advisers offer little support for such a cause.

All that was predictable, and that’s why Obama is starting to sober up many of his liberal supporters who realize that even in their former euphoria they once deep down suspected as much.