As he enters the last full year of his presidency, Barack Obama remains bereft of the services of the one man who could make his administration complete.
I refer, of course, to Newt Gingrich.
Recall, if you can, the heady days of 2008. Barack Obama, a relatively obscure figure, had just snatched the Democratic nomination from the pitiless Clinton machine, announcing the arrival of a genuinely new kind of political operation, albeit one dedicated to the service of an all-too-familiar and decrepit ideology. America wanted to see the man succeed, and even some conservatives (some of whom have since confessed their error) saw in him a newness and a freshness that seemed to compare favorably to the apparently eternal fixedness of Senator John McCain (R., Café Milano). Even those of us who saw through Obama’s phony pragmatism hoped that a few months in the saddle might make something of a realist out of him. If only Nixon could go to China, only a Democrat can reform Social Security.
The nation was quickly disabused of its fantasies regarding Barack Obama, who turned out to be simultaneously more ideological and less interested in policy particulars than most had imagined. He is an intelligent man, but his intelligence is expressed mainly in cleverness. He is a canny campaigner but not much more. To the extent that he has an interest in what George H. W. Bush contemptuously described as “the vision thing,” Obama is strictly a dorm-room thinker. Nineteen eighty-two is a great vintage for Bordeaux, but not for progressive political philosophy.
President Obama does not have the advantages that made President Clinton a success. Barack Obama is a man who has been given the benefit of the doubt his entire life, a man intellectually hobbled by excessive praise, whereas Bill Clinton, a scheming lowlife nobody from Tornado Bait, Ark., forever had to prove himself. But Clinton, who is a bit smarter than Obama, understood that in electoral politics he didn’t have to be the best — he just had to be better than the other guy on the ballot. Does anybody even remember who came in second to Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic primary campaign? (The eternal Jerry Brown; third place belonged to Paul Tsongas.) Those of you who remember the 1992 election will remember that Clinton talked endlessly about “Change” — no “Hope and™” before it — and was insistently vague about what he meant by that. All he had to be was not George H. W. Bush, whose patrician visage had been in the voters’ faces for a political generation, and that was enough.
But after the election, Clinton & Clinton, “co-presidents,” were the whole show in Washington. And that was a disaster for them, a political catastrophe from which they were rescued by the Republican revolution of 1994 and the ascent of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich and Clinton had (and have) a great deal in common — from raw brainpower to unruly personal appetites — but that simply made for better drama: Marc Antony and Brutus likewise had a lot more in common with each other than either did with the average Roman plebeian. Gingrich saved Bill Clinton. (He also got him to sign welfare reform and drop some bad ideas.) Gingrich, and to a lesser extent Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who investigated various Clinton scandals, provided Clinton with a foil. Clinton may have been a Dimmesdale, but so long as he had a Republican Chillingworth to denounce, he was golden: The man threw a party — in the Rose Garden — after his impeachment.
Barack Obama has been carried across the finish line by the same kind of dynamic more than once: He may have been a cipher in 2008, but he was not Hillary Rodham Clinton, and that appealed to many Democrats. Abraham Lincoln would have had a hard time winning as a Republican in 2008, but there was a bull market in Not-McCain, followed by a similar surge in Not-Romney shares four years later.
But on a day-to-day basis, Barack Obama is a victim of his own dominance. There is no Republican bogeyman for him to position himself in opposition to, and he suffers for it. Neither Mitch McConnell in the Senate nor John Boehner in the House, nor the new speaker, Paul Ryan, was or is enough of a Big Bad to counterbalance President Obama. Trump? Not really. In the Washington cliché, Obama sucks the oxygen out of every room he enters.
The man who was supposed to be Mr. Cool, a Vulcan, No-Drama Obama, has contributed nothing to American governance except chaos.
And it is in part for this reason that President Obama has accomplished, pardon me for noticing, almost nothing of any enduring consequence during his administration. The man of peace and civil liberties hasn’t closed Gitmo and hasn’t really even curtailed our involvement in the Middle East; indeed, he has deepened that involvement by doing things that Dick Cheney would never have dared dream of: assassinating American citizens, conducting an illegal war in Libya, expanding the drone campaign far beyond what the Bush administration had contemplated. Those 2008 fears about the PATRIOT Act empowering spooks to peek at our library cards are quaint from the point of view of annus Domini 2016. The health-insurance system is more of a mess today than it was before it was “reformed”; the Too Big to Fail banks are bigger and potentially fail-ier. Obama denounced Bush-era deficits and then surpassed them. The man who was supposed to be Mr. Cool, a Vulcan, No-Drama Obama, has contributed nothing to American governance except chaos.
And he is smart enough to know this.
If you are wondering why the president is, at the eleventh hour, using probably illegal executive fiats to start a national fight over gun control — a fight that will do nothing to reduce ordinary crime, terrorism, or mass shootings — it’s because he’s still looking for his Gingrich, and he believes that the NRA may be it. That is a grave and uncharacteristic political miscalculation for a man whose only documentable talent is for political calculation, and one suspects that his administration and his party will suffer for it between now and November.