The Sort-of-God That Failed

The New York Review of Books has become a good source of unintended humor, as its writers attempt to explain what went wrong with their sort-of-god. In the October 5 issue, Garry Wills tries to explain why Barack Obama adopted many of the national security policies of George W. Bush. It turns out we created a “national security state” back in the fifties and “any president” would find it virtually impossible to turn around.


Now, in the October 22 issue of the Review, Elizabeth Drew tries to explain how a messianic president, with control of both houses of Congress, can’t seem to get anything done on health care or even persuade anyone anymore with his speeches:

A White House aide told me that Obama was “very frustrated” by his inability to convince people that the stimulus program was working. … Obama is sometimes slow in arriving at an effective formulation, and he presses his aides to sharpen his message. Finding a voice that is explanatory rather than oratorical can be difficult for him. This definitely has been the case with health care.

Of course, it is easier to find an explanatory voice when one has a plan to explain.

Drew blames the usual meanies: “entrenched interests,” impolite Republicans, anti-government rallies, Internet and cable TV with “repetitious and vile attacks,” “extremely powerful and well-financed” insurance companies, a “frightened” public, elderly people who were “especially troubled,” etc.

But she comes a little closer to the truth when she notes a certain incredulity that necessarily accompanies a non-plan that promises everything:

It was counterintuitive to believe that the president’s program would expand coverage to include nearly all of the forty-five million people who don’t have it and at the same time save money. It’s even harder for people on Medicare to accept that the proposed cuts in the program would not — as administration officials insisted — affect their benefits. The pledge to achieve most of the cost reductions by eliminating “waste and abuse” — a vague but handy phrase going back at least as far as Ronald Reagan — wasn’t convincing or reassuring.


Drew recounts how Obama, after his argument about saving money did not work, changed his sales pitch to an attack on insurance companies (while cutting deals with industry to get their support), and finally settled on a third strategy: a message of “stability and security” — “words that sound as if they had poll-tested well.”

The problem is that it is hard to be convincing, much less eloquent, about shifting explanations for a plan that does not exist. At times Obama would emphasize the public option and at others he would downplay its importance as merely a “sliver”; then he indicated an openness to a confusing new idea (a delayed “trigger” as a kind of layaway public option). But the administration “never really made clear how a public insurance plan would work.” There still is no Obama plan.

When Obama tried to mobilize support, late in the game, with — what else? — a speech, he still didn’t have a plan:

As the time for the president’s big speech before Congress approached, it was clear that the White House was still making up its health care proposal as it went along. … When, two hours before the president’s speech, I asked someone closely involved in the design of the president’s program how this idea would work, he replied, “Keep in mind that this is all very fluid.”

It becomes apparent by the end of Drew’s long article that the fundamental problem is Obama believes he is a sort of god:

Chuck Todd of NBC reported that before he gave [the Labor Day and congressional speeches] Obama’s staff had had to get him “fired up” to take on his critics. Obama, whose high self-esteem is well known among close observers, had previously assumed that a “following,” a “movement,” would be there without his having to do much to stimulate it.


The funny part of Drew’s article is that she seems to think that that’s the ticket — Obama just has to stimulate the worshippers:

Late in the game, he realized he had to do so. He’s now thrown his full weight behind his health care push by, among other things, in mid-September going on five Sunday television programs. … And around the same time, Michelle Obama, who had been seeking a more substantive White House role, entered the fray as someone who could especially appeal to women, in particular young mothers, about the stakes for them in health care reform. After this, no one would be able to charge that Obama hadn’t tried.

He went on five shows! Michelle entered the fray! But it’s up to others to produce a plan so he can sign it. Now is the moment.

Last year, in the presidential campaign, some noted that Barack Obama had less executive experience than a two-time mayor and one-term governor running for vice president; that he had (unlike that other candidate) no significant record of achievement in office; and that (again unlike her) he had no record of reaching across the aisle from his furthest-left seat in the Senate. The response was that running a successful campaign was itself executive experience and that he would govern — didn’t you hear his speeches? — as a post-partisan, post-racial, purple president.

It made for great rhetoric and a successful campaign, but as “any president” could tell you, there is a difference between campaigning and governing. It takes more than speeches — or in a pinch, five interviews — to create the political consensus necessary to pass a grand inchoate scheme. It takes more than an outstretched hand (and a video or reset button or bow) to get nations to unclench their fists. It is easy to give a big speech in a foreign capital and lean on small allies — harder to stand by them and stand up to adversaries.


Obama does not yet have a failed presidency, but he is on course to one in both domestic and foreign affairs. If he is going to revive it, he needs to come down to earth soon.


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