Tom Keane

No malaise, please

President Obama’s disengaged style has evoked bad memories for some liberals

By Tom Keane
August 24, 2011

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THE QUESTION is raised cautiously, perhaps over drinks at a bar or during a casual dinner among friends. The conversants are staunchly Democratic, and so to even raise the subject seems like disloyalty, but it is raised nonetheless: “So, how do you think Obama is doing?’’

To ask is to admit the answer to come. There are no rousing affirmations (“Great! He’s delivering just what he promised!’’). One word crops up most frequently: “Disappointing.’’

This has been a bad summer for Barack Obama. There is, of course, the vacation, a 10-day respite to the moneyed enclaves of Martha’s Vineyard. Democrats can dutifully recite the talking points: Obama has taken just 61 days of vacation, while after the same time in office George W. Bush had spent 180 days away from the White House, Ronald Reagan 112. On the other hand, Bill Clinton - in retrospect, his terms were the Democrats’ glory days - had taken but 28. And no one doubts that had Clinton been in office while the economy was tanking, the stock market collapsing, and more than 9 percent of Americans were failing to secure work, he would have understood the theatrics of it all and stayed at home. Or at least he wouldn’t have gone to the Vineyard.

This vacation came on the heels of the ugly battle over raising the debt ceiling, one that Obama largely lost. During that fight, some suggested Obama assert that, as president, he had the power to raise the debt ceiling himself, an argument imperfectly grounded in the 14th Amendment (“The validity of the public debt . . . shall not be questioned’’). Doing so would have given the president a powerful weapon he could have used to push back hard against House Republicans. Bill Clinton thought it a fine idea. Obama rejected the tactic altogether. It felt like unilateral disarmament.

There are other examples as well. The campaign for a national health care bill featured a disengaged Obama - who allowed Congress to put together a potpourri mess of a bill - coupled with partisan strong-arming to force its passage. Many wonder now, with the benefit of hindsight, whether that issue should have been joined at all, given the perilous economy Obama inherited. A focus on jobs alone would have been enough.

The consensus is that Obama is a good man: honest, smart, and well-meaning. These were all words that applied to former president Jimmy Carter, too. When one explores the meaning of the word “disappointing,’’ it lies in a sense that, like Carter, Obama poorly wields the levers of power. He campaigned on lofty ideals and vague words (“hope,’’ of course, being most notable). But on reflection, it turns out we want our presidents to get results, and doing so requires a willingness to use the scheming and manipulative dark arts of politics. Obama seems disinclined to tread that path. Suddenly the idealists who flocked to his campaign because he wasn’t, say, Hilary Clinton, now fret that he doesn’t play the game very well - or even, at all.

Don’t misunderstand. I find few Democrats ready to cast their lot with one of the potential Republican nominees. The Tea Party candidates - Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry - are anathema to what they believe, while Mitt Romney, an amorphous cipher, left a bad taste in their mouths from his days as the Commonwealth’s governor. Nor are there many (although there are a few) who would relish an intraparty challenge, a la Kennedy versus Carter. Obama, they all agree, will be the Democratic nominee in November 2012, and Obama, they also agree, will get their vote.

If they vote - and there’s the rub. Obama was swept into office by a wave of enthusiasm, much of it from younger people, African-Americans, and others disenchanted by national politics. The passion and enthusiasm of those days now seem far gone; the disenchantment is back. Barack Obama has advantages: he is a marvelous campaigner, may have about $1 billion in campaign funds at his disposal, and will be facing a fractured foe (Tea Party versus GOP stalwarts). But to succeed he must somehow, like a preacher before congregants that now question their religion, revive the faith.

Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe.