The Tragic Mediocrity of Barack Obama

The occasion of Mr. Obama’s second inauguration seems an apt time for a little historical perspective and observation.

Over at least the past half century, all the presidents who have risen above the level of mediocrity (for better or worse) have shared one characteristic. Each has been, in some significant way, a mold-breaker, an innovator. Each has left an individual mark on the nation that was unique, that transcended the orthodoxy of whichever party he rode to power.

Who have been the non-mediocrities? LBJ and Reagan, certainly; Nixon and Clinton (in spite of their grave moral flaws), probably.

Johnson broke the mold on civil rights and social programs (where he moved considerably faster and further than Democratic party orthodoxy as of November 1963 would have suggested) and on Vietnam, where he resisted the increasing dovishness of his party to the end.

Nixon, of course, broke the mold just about everywhere. His domestic program, whatever it was, was certainly not standard-issue Republicanism, and his foreign policy creativity was obvious even in his time.

Reagan’s chief innovations were supply-side economics (which the GOP establishment famously considered “voodoo”) and the robust military and economic challenges to the Soviet Union, which sent that evil empire to the ash-heap of history.  

Clinton’s record of achievement rests largely on welfare reform, free trade, and a balanced budget, none of which was a high-priority item for the Democratic Party in the 1990s.

Even some of the mediocrities tried, with a bit less success, to innovate and transcend the accepted wisdom of their parties. Carter embraced deregulation (tepidly) and rearmament (too late). Bush II pushed hard to federalize education and expand Medicare.

Now consider Obama. The major initiatives of his first term have been: “stimulus” spending, higher taxes, an expansion of health care entitlements, and increased regulation. Every one of these not only reflects mainstream liberal Democrat thinking today, but has been part of Democratic Party orthodoxy for decades. What is uniquely “Obama” about any of this, or, indeed, about any of his professed second-term agenda, with its a la carte selection of menu items for women, gays, Hispanics, climate change alarmists, and so on? What would have been different in a Pelosi presidency, or a Reid presidency, or a Hillary presidency? Essentially, nothing.

This is not to suggest that the Obama presidency as been inconsequential. Far from it. But the man himself has served far more as a politically effective vessel for standard liberal orthodoxy than as an individual leader or innovator. The verdict of objective history, if any ever comes to be written, will be that the Democratic Party took advantage of the peculiar circumstances of 2008 (recession, a brief financial panic, and abnormally weak Republican leadership) and the availability of a media-genic, broadly popular figurehead, to impose a set of initiatives that have been on its to-do list for decades. But Obama himself has given very little shape to any of this, has left almost no mark that is uniquely his. And thus, however consequential his presidency, he himself must be judged, at best, a mediocrity.

For the country as a whole, this has been tragic. For if Obama has been an effective vessel for delivering standard-issue liberal Democrat cargo, consider how much more effective he could have been as an agent of real reform and innovation.

For instance, at just about any time in his first term, the man who has spoken so often of “post-partisanship” could have called together the leaders of both parties and said, “Folks, we have a serious structural deficit problem, and it’s only going to get worse unless someone steps up and tackles this in a big way. I have two young girls. I don’t want to bequeath to them, or their kids, a stultifying, unmanageable debt. So we’re going to do it. Republicans, we need revenue. Democrats, we need serious entitlement reform. Let’s get to work.” It would not have been easy, but if anyone in the recent past or foreseeable future could have pulled this off, he could have.

Or take the whole set of issues loosely lumped under the heading of “race.” Imagine the impact of America’s first African-American president standing up in front of the Democratic National Convention and saying, “Folks, almost two whole generations have grown up since the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. America today is not the same place that called for those remedies, nor is it the same place that required affirmative action. The fact is, most Americans today are pretty color-blind. Yes, there still exist isolated pockets of bigotry and discrimination, and we will continue to fight those with every means at our disposal. But racial disparities today are far more the result of indirect legacies of past discrimination — and, yes, of different behavioral choices made by members of different groups — than of overt discrimination.  And these problems call for different approaches and different solutions from the problem of direct discrimination which we have, as a nation, very largely overcome.”

One could come up with any number of other examples. But the failure of this mediocre man to take advantage of his unique position to generate truly new and innovative ideas, or to take the lead in offering up genuinely post-partisan solutions, must be accounted a tragedy of missed opportunities.

  1. doc molloy
    Four short years back the messiah’s followers chanted of “O-ba-MA! O-ba-MA!”   There was an echo harking back to another time when the Argentine crowds rallied out “Pe-RON! Pe-RON! ” …Does anyone else get a sense of Obama sensing his moment and  seizing power gradually, tightening his grip, bit by les miserable bit as Juan Peron did over once-prosperous and relatively free Argentina … undermining the Constitution slowly, often out of the public eye, bit by bit, while gradually reshaping the bureaucracy to carry out and the courts to approve each of his dictates of what needs to be done to fundamentally transform America as he promised he would in his first inaugural speech.      We’ve seen his “czars.” His decision to govern by executive orders and to ignore the Congress when it doesn’t bend to his will. 

    When you have a messiah such as Obama you don’t need checks and balances.. The messiah knows what needs to done. 

    After all, he was been a community organiser is a past life. He truly understands American exceptionalism every time he looks in the mirror.

    Or is it just a bad dream…

  2. TooTexanForMyShirt

    I largely agree with your assessment. While his presidency may be significant, he is not. Our household has been particularly unimpressed with his alleged intellectual “gifts”. Obama is just a garden-variety narcissist who deserves to have his contempt for others reflected back at him. And you can find more leadership in any random, singularly reviled, Boy Scout.

  3. David Williamson

    Once again we need to remember that the majority of Americans voted for this mediocrity – therein lies the problem. 

  4. Blame The Innocent

    He wrote two autobiographies.

  5. Nick Stuart
    Steve Manacek: …the man who has spoken so often of “post-partisanship” could have called together the leaders of both parties and said, “Folks, we have a serious structural deficit problem, and it’s only going to get worse unless someone steps up and tackles this in a big way.  I have two young girls.  I don’t want to bequeath to them, or their kids, a stultifying, unmanageable debt.  …”

    The President has made the calculation that his daughters will have every material advantage the United States (still) has to offer. He’ll leave office and shake the money tree for decades, insuring that they will live comfortably their entire lives.

    He’ll make sure his family is taken care of. They will live securely in a compound with heavily armed security. His fellow travellers will be well compensated from the public purse and will likewise have no worries.

  6. doc molloy

    Blame The Innocent

    He wrote two autobiographies.

    Oh yes let’s not forget the community organiser’s two autobiogs that He wrote..

    And there may well have been a ghost writer in the sky.. Oh those airs and graces..

  7. Matt Travis

    He’s the affirmative action Manchurian teleprompter reader who, oh by the way, has been steeped in communism since birth..

  8. Richard Fulmer

    I strongly disagree.  President Obama has been very much a ground-breaker.  No other president in the last half-century has been so partisan, divisive, and dismissive of the opposition.  No other president has refused to deal with opposition party leaders to the extent Obama has.  The discord and anger fanned by Obama’s actions will be his legacy and, unfortunately, may have a long lasting impact on the nation.

  9. EJHill

    Clinton’s record of achievement rests largely on welfare reform, free trade, and a balanced budget, none of which was a high-priority item for the Democratic Party in the 1990s.

    Surely, Mr. Manacek, you haven’t bought into that myth. Clinton’s “balanced budget” was a bookkeeping trick. At no point during his years did the debt go down, the deficit near zero or show a surplus.

    What did happen is that intragovernment holdings skyrocketed. Because of the dotcom bubble Social Security took in record amounts during those years and SSA is required by law to “invest” by buying US Securities.

    To quote Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings at that point, “Both Democrats and Republicans are all running this year and next and saying surplus, surplus. Look what we have done. It is false. The actual figures show that from the beginning of the fiscal year until now we had to borrow $127,800,000,000.” (October 28, 1999 Video: CSPAN)

  10. Redneck Desi

    It does not matter how mediocre he is…he will be “elevated” because of who he represents. The fawning over Obama is just completely unprecedented in American politics, and it is harmful to the republic. Unfortunately, I think this will continue 20 years from now when the history is written.

  11. Blame The Innocent
    Redneck Desi: It does not matter how mediocre he is…he will be “elevated” because of who he represents. The fawning over Obama is just completely unprecedented in American politics, and it is harmful to the republic. Unfortunately, I think this will continue 20 years from now when the history is written. · 16 minutes ago

    Let the deification begin.

  12. Richard Fulmer
    Blame The Innocent

    Redneck Desi: It does not matter how mediocre he is…he will be “elevated” because of who he represents. The fawning over Obama is just completely unprecedented in American politics, and it is harmful to the republic. Unfortunately, I think this will continue 20 years from now when the history is written.

    Let the deification begin.

    Begin?  Where have you been for the last four years?

  13. kylez
    Blame The Innocent: He wrote two autobiographies. · 1 hour ago

    Before anyone had ever even heard of him.

  14. Well said, Steve, however, I would suggest that Obama is less than mediocre in that he has had the perfect opportunity to create a “legacy” that he is uniquely qualified to accomplish and that would forever reflect positively on him in the history books: the reconstruction of the black family in 21st century America.

    There seems little argument that the social policies of the past 40 years have decimated the nuclear black family in America, yet here is a black man who, by most accounts I’ve read, is a loyal husband and devoted father… and also president of the United States! And while leading by example is certainly praisworthy, it would seem he could have done (and still can do) so much more to  help remedy this tragic situation.

    I really wonder why he has been so silent on this issue.

  15. Steve Manacek
    C
    Hammer: I really wonder why he has been so silent on this issue. · 14 minutes ago

    Me too.  It’s this, more than anything else, that makes me think he really is just a partisan ideologue and not a well-intentioned (though severely misguided) leader.  This should be a no-brainer for him, and would be of much greater long-term benefit to African Americans — and everyone else — than all the “disparate impact” studies dreamed up by by Holder & Co.  But he won’t do it, because at heart he really cares more about ideology and partisan politics than about people.  Tragic.

  16. LHFry

    Perfect for our time:   shallow, ignorant, self-absorbed.

  17. Capt. Spaulding

    Is it not possible that someone in the White House, someone in the inner circle, some thoughtful adult, is thinking along these same lines? Might such a person, following in the tradition of other “now it can be told” memoirs, crank out in 2016 or so a book that tells the world how foolish and illusory and harmful has been this whole sad enterprise? Oh, maybe not.

  18. Blame The Innocent

    There’s no holding back now.  Look for statues, re-named streets, etc., who knows, maybe even a new left-wing transformational image for the dime.

    Richard Fulmer

    Blame The Innocent

    Redneck Desi: It does not matter how mediocre he is…he will be “elevated” because of who he represents. The fawning over Obama is just completely unprecedented in American politics, and it is harmful to the republic. Unfortunately, I think this will continue 20 years from now when the history is written.

    Let the deification begin.

    Begin?  Where have you been for the last four years? · 6 hours ago

  19. Blame The Innocent

    Or had anything worth writing.  It boggles the mind. 

    kylez

    Blame The Innocent: He wrote two autobiographies. · 1 hour ago

    Before anyone had ever even heard of him. · 7 hours ago

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