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.