Here he goes again: Barack Obama is jacking up expectations to virtually unreachable heights.
Four years ago, the president overpromised and underperformed in his quixotic bid to change Washington's corrosive culture. The result was a first term that, despite considerable achievement, not only failed to restore the public’s faith in government, but actually increased voter skepticism. Obama’s only route to reelection was a cynical, negative campaign that belied his hope-and-change image.
He could have emerged from the decisive victory determined to double down on his brand – to work harder to change Washington: Reach out more aggressively to rivals; look more creatively for “win-win” compromises; fight more fiercely for institutional reforms; summon Americans more regularly to sacrifice for the common good; and use his personal appeal and political machine to marginalize extremists in both parties.
Instead, judging by his Inaugural Address and postelection statements, Obama seems to be taking a route that might seem easier, and certainly must feel better, but is a sad capitulation to the times. It is as if Obama threw up his hands in (understandable) disgust with his polarizing rivals and declared, “If I can’t beat ‘em, I’ll join ‘em.”
And so Obama is raising expectations – this time for combat over a liberal agenda that will save the planet, fortify the middle class, protect entitlements, regulate guns and extend gay rights. Even if he fails to push his policies through Congress, Obama can now claim he fought the good fight.
But great presidents don’t just fight good fights; they win them. To be considered a great president, Obama needs to produce durable success on big, even liberal, issues like climate change. The question is, how does he go about it? Does he promise more than he can deliver and set a confrontational tone from the start of his second term? Or does he follow his 2008 campaign voice, a path chosen by Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and other immortalized presidents.
Obama would better serve his ambitious goals by forcing rivals to play his game rather than bow to theirs. David Ignatius writes in The Washington Post, “The country needs a president who can do more than advance, incrementally, a partisan agenda. An Obama who could somehow rally the country to restructure Medicare and Social Security so they can endure through the 21st century might be a great president. But Obama moved in another direction Monday.”
His colleague Robert Samuelson writes that one reason voters are disillusioned with politics is that our leaders “often create narratives that seem uplifting and convincing only because they are completely detached from underlying realities.”
Despite his lofty rhetoric and sincere intentions, Obama never committed himself fully to the nitty-gritty of consensus-building and transforming institutions. And when the going got tough – when rivals snuffed out his hope and stymied his change – Obama quit.
The president’s liberal allies should pause and wonder what Obama will do when his take-no-prisoners approach meets resistance. For it surely will: Republicans are already laying the groundwork to criticize him for overreaching.
House Speaker John Boehner accused the administration Wednesday of seeking to “annihilate” the GOP and shove it “into the dustbin of history.” Three potential GOP presidential candidates – Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana – are making nods at the political middle, hoping that Obama has created a vacuum.
Many consider posts like this to be naive. Reader @pjhoody tweeted that I must have liked Obama better “when he was a pushover of sorts.” Well, no. Great leaders are not pushovers. Great leaders rally people to a common good, and don’t, as Obama has done, change strategies and brands in midstream.
Great leaders raise expectations and exceed them.
As understandable as it may be for Obama to fight fire with fire and resort to his rivals’ us-versus-them mentality, it's unlikely to work. He is raising expectations for big solutions. If all we get is big fights, nobody wins.