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Jewish World Review
Aug 20, 2012/ 2 Elul, 5772
Obama remains a puzzle even as he asks the American people for a second chance
George W. Bush was not an enigma. He had no hidden parts. His father was not mysterious. George H.W. Bush's life was dedicated to achievement and service. Even Bill Clinton wasn't unfathomable. Nothing in his presidency -- the brilliant highs, the shocking lows -- was a substantial, unpredictable departure from his past.
Barack Obama, though, is the most enigmatic president since Jimmy Carter, the most mysterious since Lyndon Johnson, the most unfathomable since Franklin Roosevelt. Political professionals sometimes say of public figures that what you see is what you get, more or less. But with Mr. Obama, what you see is both more and less than what you get.
All this is on display as Mr. Obama runs for president in the same economic crisis that helped catapult him to the White House in the first place. His first term was disappointing; even he implicitly acknowledges that. He is looking to renew his vows with the American people -- the 18th-century English pundit Samuel Johnson would call that the triumph of hope over experience, his classic definition of the second marriage -- and he's returned to his most comfortable role: candidate.
A third of a century ago American pollsters and consultants began speaking of a "permanent campaign" -- the notion originated with Carter pollster Patrick Caddell -- that transformed the act of governing in the White House into an extension of campaigning for the White House.
But there was an abrupt change between Mr. Obama's campaign, which seemed so beguiling, and Mr. Obama's presidency, which managed to repel his allies on the left even as it consolidated, even fortified, his opposition on the right.
Mr. Obama was a silver-tongued orator in the campaign but he lacked a silver bullet in the presidency. He was a darling on the stump, a dud in office. This is not a remarkable view. It is held in the White House itself.
Part of the reason was the hand he was dealt. No one underestimates the rot in the U.S. economy, made worse by the crisis in Europe that Mr. Obama cannot be expected to control and the competitive challenges from Asia that former Gov. Mitt Romney's proposals also would only glancingly affect. But no one assumes the presidency without anticipating difficulty and unpredictability.
Mr. Bush the younger understood this, and when a White House visitor expressed sympathy for the hardship he faced after the 2001 terrorism attacks, the president said that handling such challenges was precisely why he sought the office. So it was, presumably, with Mr. Obama. He ran for president to deal with the economy, not to be burdened by it, and to change the way Washington worked, not to bemoan it.
Outside the Washington Beltway, and perhaps inside it as well, the president seems to be two men, one a brilliant practitioner of the political arts, the other a conscientious objector to politics. But politics comes in two dimensions. A skilled president must know how to get the office and then know how to use it. Failed presidents triumph in the former and stumble in the latter.
(Then, of course, there are the political figures whose strengths sadly are in reverse order. These politicians are deficient at campaigning for the presidency though they had been successful in other high posts. Former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts was one of them. Sen. John McCain of Arizona was another. Both ran execrable general-election campaigns but might have flourished, for vastly different reasons in completely different eras, as chief executive had they prevailed.)
Presidents come in multiple dimensions. The political scientist and biographer James MacGregor Burns opened his classic 1970 work on FDR's wartime presidency by observing that Roosevelt was "divided between the man of principle, of ideals, of faith, crusading for a distant vision, on the one hand; and, on the other, the man of Realpolitik, of prudence, of narrow, manageable, short-run goals, intent always on protecting his power and authority in a world of shifting moods and capricious fortune."
Operating from this kind of divided personality -- and here we are obliged to acknowledge that Mr. Obama is no more complex than Roosevelt, nor does he have a rougher burden than Roosevelt, who faced a Depression that threatened capitalism and a world war that threatened democracy -- FDR nonetheless came to personify a kind of political unity. He flourished in electoral politics and he flourished as president.
The gravest warning sign in Mr. Obama's background wasn't his spare record in the U.S. Senate (Johnson often ridiculed John F. Kennedy for having accomplished almost nothing in the Capitol), nor his limited experience in electoral office (Lincoln had but one term in the House). Instead, the most troubling aspect of Mr. Obama's past were the 129 abstentions in his Illinois Senate career. They suggested that Mr. Obama was more interested in getting elected than in doing the work he had been elected to perform.
Few accuse President Obama of being a shirker and, in any case, no one measures long-term impact by the length of a president's day or his attention to detail -- not since Ronald Reagan (substantial success despite snoozy afternoons and evenings at TV tables watching old movies) and Jimmy Carter (little success despite grinding work days and such a freakish attention to detail that he programmed the music in the White House and reviewed requests to use the tennis court). But the mystery about this president is why he has not been able to match his poetic style of campaigning across the country with the prosaic business of governing the country.
In 2008, when Mr. Obama was a phenomenon as much as a candidate, he sowed excitement not seen since Kennedy and promised a change in governing approach not seen since Reagan. Now he is campaigning again, this time lacing his effort with blistering critiques of Mr. Romney, many of which seem to have damaged his rival.
But the election in November is far less about Mr. Romney than it is about Mr. Obama. It is also about this stark fact: This is the first election since 1992 when an incumbent president is in the position of asking not only for a second term but also for a second chance.
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David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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07/30/12 What summer is for: How August can matter, and how Romney might use it
07/23/12 The Independent son of independent Maine promises to shake up Washington
07/16/12 The Rambler American
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07/02/12 It's got only four electoral votes, but Romney and Obama will be fighting for them
06/25/12 A little noted rebellion over a lonely stretch of land helps tell the American story
06/18/12 You're nothing special: Luck is what you make of it . . . and what it makes of you
06/11/12 Anybody can talk authoritatively about the presidential election. Here's how
06/04/12 Candidates love to ally themselves with admired presidents, in sometimes unexpected ways
05/29/12 Americans aren't in a new burst of patriotism but they are in a new burst of appreciation for the military
05/21/12 Inside out: Almost nothing about this year's presidential election conforms to conventional analysis
05/14/12 Lugar grew into an elder statesman, which is why he'll be leaving the Senate
05/07/12 50 years later, MacArthur's farewell to arms continues to inspire
04/30/12 The likability factor: We're going to find out how important it is in these troubled times
04/23/12 Romney's four battles: With the nomination essentially in hand, he must turn to new challenges
04/16/12 For GOPers, expect the frustration to build, not abate
04/09/12 The political battles you cannot see
04/02/12 Romney's roadmap: Doing better in Democratic states may complicate his fall campaign
03/26/12 Romney struggles with same GOP forces his father faced long ago
03/19/12 The writer and the president
03/12/12 Romney could learn from his rivals after Super Tuesday
03/05/12 The GOP race continues, and Republicans continue to grouse about their choices
02/27/12 The turnout threat: when voters vamoose
02/20/12 The Winter's Tale: Republicans are engaged in a 'problem play,' full of psychological, and real, drama
02/13/12 Which Ike to like?
02/08/12 A tale of two elections: Voters today are making their most profound choice since 1912
01/30/12 Whither the GOP establishment?
01/23/12 The Democratic coalition is breaking up
01/09/12 The verdict that wasn't
01/02/12 These are the keys to who will persist
12/19/11 Another Gingrich rebellion
12/12/11 A defining fight for the GOP
12/05/11 A distinct lack of enthusiasm
11/28/11 For GOPers, the winds are beginning to pick up, the horizon is darkening
11/21/11 Today's polarized politics . . . blame FDR and the political scientists
11/11/11The sporting life
11/07/11 Ron Paul, true believer
10/31/11 Why Cain isn't able
10/10/11 GOP starting over
10/03/11 The Forgotten War of 1812
09/26/11 The way we live now
09/19/11 The crisis this time
09/11/11 But what will it mean?
09/05/11 A horse race column: Who might win the GOP nomination and how it might unfold
08/29/11 The vacuum calls
08/22/11 Passion and politics: How Barack Obama and Mitt Romney got crowded into the same dangerous corner
08/15/11 Eleanor's little village
08/08/11 The agony of August
08/01/11 The politics of the impossible: What a country this might be if the political class served the broad interests of the majority
07/25/11 Pennant fever grips 'Burgh
07/18/11 Exemplar of an era
07/11/11 On summer
07/04/11 The soul of the party
06/27/11 What the Secretary said
06/20/11 Romney has big advantages over his rivals, but they will be coming after him
06/06/11 One question each
05/30/11 The 14-week challenge
05/23/11 Delay tactics
05/16/11 Republicans are waiting
05/09/11 Bin Laden is dead. What does it mean?
05/02/11 From nobodies to nominees
04/25/11 The founders left slavery for future generations to settle, and we still haven't fully come to terms with it
04/18/11 From audacious to cautious
04/11/11 Dreaming of space
12/12/10 The GOP takes control
12/06/10 DECEMBER 7
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11/22/10 Burning down the House
11/15/10 Institutions of higher learning are finally beginning to teach important lifeskills
11/04/10 The war has just begun
11/01/10 Echoes of a speech 40 years ago this week still resonate today
10/25/10 50 years ago America chose between two men who were dramatically different --- and eerily similar
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