David Rothkopf

Barack Obama is a P.T.

In his heyday, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama had that magic trait that sets great politicians apart and assures their success. He was the rare leader upon whom people could project their hopes. Different audiences would look at him and see in him the promise of the often very different futures to which ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In his heyday, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama had that magic trait that sets great politicians apart and assures their success. He was the rare leader upon whom people could project their hopes. Different audiences would look at him and see in him the promise of the often very different futures to which they aspired.

Today, he is suffering from a shortcoming that mirrors his earlier strength. Today, diverse audiences look at him and see in him the source of their frustrations. He is becoming a magnet for blame.

Part of this is due to the natural transition that occurs as one progresses from being a little known rising star who has not yet held executive offices to being the guy in charge, the one who assumes and is assigned responsibility for all manner of events — including many imposed by him by circumstances beyond his control.

Part of this however, is something he and those close to him have brought upon themselves. During the past several weeks, in conversation after conversation with former avid supporters who are now alienated or doubting, I have heard the same thing. Almost always the word I hear is "disappointment." Many of Obama’s original and most natural backers feel let down and some feel betrayed. They feel that they were set up by his rhetoric and then let down by his inability or unwillingness or lack of concern with following through on it.

To them, to the world, Barack Obama is a P.T. — he’s a policy-tease. In situation after situation, he raised expectations with great speeches or big promises and then in each he and those around him did not follow up actively, negotiated away the heart of what was promised, went beyond compromise and straight to capitulation. Or, in some instances, they simply dithered and failed to lead. But in each case, the impact on supporters was acute — they felt drawn in, they started to hope again, their blood was flowing, they were ready for that transformational moment.

He seduced and then he did not come through.

It happened on health care. It happened on jobs. It happened with the Cairo Speech promising a transformed and active U.S. role in the Middle East. It happened with the Prague speech promising an active effort to zero out nuclear weapons. It happened with the Simpson-Bowles Commission. It happened with the promise of green jobs and a commitment to a new energy policy.

Is some of it due to Republican obstructionism? The vagaries of the Middle East? The trickiness of arms issues? Certainly. But when the pattern is so clear, so often repeated, when it so regularly involves passivity or leaving the initiative to others or the White House negotiating big ideas away with itself before even encountered an opponent, at some point one has to say it is something more. It can hardly be called a character of leadership but to many of those who worked on his campaign, who rooted for him most enthusiastically, who donated money in 2008 but who won’t do it again this time around, it certainly does seem to reveal the president’s character as a leader.

Might this change? Might he someday be seen as having struggled to a slow start due to the extraordinary array of economic, social and security challenges with which he was confronted? Perhaps. But the problem with being a tease is that you often permanently alienate those most drawn to you in the first place.  And that reality is going to create a fundamental and not fully recognized challenge for the president in the campaign ahead.

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