The Corner

Strengths and Weaknesses

I commend Rich’s piece – something I could do for virtually every one of his columns, I suppose. But I wanted to draw out something from Rich’s core argument, which is that Obama’s calm temperament, while attractive during the campaign, looks considerably less impressive now, with the market (and perhaps the American economy) in collapse.

The acid test for political leaders — and not only political leaders — are results. If things are going well, the qualities and characteristics of an individual are praised. If things don’t go well, they are lacerated. In 1984, when the economy was going gang-busters, Ronald Reagan was praised as a steadfast leader, principled, a man of deep convictions and boundless optimism. In December 1982, when he (along with Paul Volker) was busy wringing “stagflation” out of the system and unemployment topped ten percent, Reagan was criticized for being stubborn, rigid, inflexible, and ridiculously out of touch.

Reagan was the same man, with essentially the same strengths and weaknesses. But the lens through which much of the public saw him was completely different.

Back in November I wrote:  

If things go well, Obama and Democrats will be very difficult to dislodge. They own the show; if they manage it well, they will be rewarded. But if not, everything will change. In fact, the things many people now look at as Obama’s strengths will be viewed as weaknesses. His calm demeanor will be characterized as detachment; his cool intelligence will be cited as an example of his lack of passion. His ability to grasp different sides of different issues will be evidence of a man who is indecisive, better suited to be a college professor than a president. His efforts to portray himself as anti-ideological and pragmatic will be interpreted as lacking core convictions….

For understandable reasons, many people are being swept up in this remarkable American moment. But reality will intrude soon enough, and Barack Obama will face the same standards that every other President has faced. Incantations of “hope” and “change” can work in a campaign. They are virtually useless when it comes to governing. Barack Obama is about to enter the crucible. We’ll see how he performs.

The verdict so far — early enough not to be final but not so early to be baseless — is not terribly reassuring.

We’re not yet at the point that Obama’s perceived strengths have transmuted into perceived weaknesses — but we’re several steps closer than we were; and a good deal closer now than most people thought would be the case at this juncture. This is now Barack Obama’s economy; he was hired by the public to fix what ails us. So far, his actions have made a bad situation worse, and he seems — again, so far at least — unprepared and unable to handle the crisis before him.

I hope he comes around soon and puts in place a plan that will effectively address the banking crisis and toxic assets. The longer President Obama waits, the worse things are getting. And the calmness that once reassured many Americans will begin to agitate them. As one person who wrote me earlier today about Obama put it, “Make a damn decision already!”

Obama and his team may think this is unfair; whether or not it is, it is the nature of the job. And the job is his. 

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