Last week, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote: "Who is Barack Obama? Americans are still looking for the answer, and if they don't get it soon -- or if they don't like the answer -- the president's current political problems will look like a walk in the park. ... Mr. Obama is in danger of being perceived as someone whose rhetoric, however skillful, cannot always be trusted. He is creating a credibility gap for himself, and if it widens much more he won't be able to close it."
A president knows he is going through a hard patch when even his strongest supporters write such things. But, curiously, no commentator has more shrewdly foreshadowed this quagmire of ambiguity in which President Obama finds himself in this cold February 2010 than Mr. Obama himself in his book published in 2006:
"Furthermore, I am a prisoner of my own biography: I can't help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives.
"But that is not all that I am. ... I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship. ... I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally. ...
"Undoubtedly, some of these views will get me in trouble. I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them. ... A second, more intimate theme to this book [is] how I, or anybody in public office, can avoid the pitfalls of fame, the hunger to please, the fear of loss, and thereby retain that kernel of truth, that singular voice within each of us that reminds us of our deepest commitments" (excerpted from "The Audacity of Hope," Crown, 2006).
The "blank screen" passage has been much quoted (including by me a couple of times) and, standing alone, might suggest cynicism. But when considered in the context of the previous few paragraphs and poignant following sentences -- and when read now, after the president's first difficult year in office -- a sadder, possibly tragic, vision emerges.
Perhaps the president has not been tactical and clever in the various different facets of his views that he has shown us: "I am a prisoner of my own biography. ..." If one reads his words that he is "forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized," and his words a few paragraphs down, where he wonders, "How I, or anybody in public office, can avoid the pitfalls of fame, the hunger to please, the fear of loss" -- one can't help wondering whether his "hunger to please" is in perpetual, inconclusive battle with his innermost visions and judgments.
Of course, we are all a bundle of contradictions, and we all grapple with the tension between pleasing others and being true to ourselves. And Mr. Obama is to be commended for writing with such searing honesty just a year before he started his run for the presidency.
But all of the foregoing would be merely obscure marginalia to the main text of his presidency if, in his first year in office, he had executed his responsibilities with a firm steadiness of purpose. He would not be in the fix he is in now if he had so comported himself that his strong supporter Mr. Herbert (and many other of his cheerleaders) had not felt compelled to rudely question his credibility and wondered out loud who Mr. Obama is.
If the president is to save his presidency from a fatal weakening, he needs promptly to work through his inner dialogue and resolve the contesting urge to be loved with the urge to be true to himself -- in favor of the latter. His State of the Union speech reflected too much of the former.
He could do with a little less public love and a lot more public respect. Take some stands and stick with them. If he thinks we need more deficit spending to stimulate the economy, he shouldn't trot out rhetoric and faux policies in support of deficit reduction. He thereby neither gained the support of fiscal conservatives nor kept the favor of those for more deficits. (See Paul Krugman's brutal New York Times column in which he called the president not a true deficit hawk, but a "deficit peacock," a term he borrowed from an article published by the Center for American Progress) because, as the CAP article said, he "pretend(s) that our budget problems can be solved with gimmicks like a temporary freeze."
If he truly believes he cannot get the health care legislation he wants, he should tell his allies (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in particular) to drop it, now. Give his allies on the Hill firm priorities and guidance. He should not continue to hint at cap-and-trade if he knows it can't happen in 2010. He may disappoint the Greens but gain their respect for his firm leadership.
Whether he wants to "stay the course" or "pivot to the center," the president has the next six months to steadily and unambiguously execute that vision. If he fails to right his image by then -- it will be post-Katrina time for yet another president.