Free Markets, Free People
Howard Fineman Sees It Too
As mentioned the other day, when I first heard Obama’s UN speech I wondered if I was just reading too much into what I’d heard. Then I saw Michael Gerson’s column and felt some relief about the fact that I wasn’t the only one which felt that way. Today I discover Howard Fineman, a pretty avid Obama supporter, is feeling a bit uneasy for precisely the same reasons Gerson and I did.
The president’s problem isn’t that he is too visible; it’s the lack of content in what he says when he keeps showing up on the tube. Obama can seem a mite too impressed with his own aura, as if his presence on the stage is the Answer. There is, at times, a self-referential (even self-reverential) tone in his big speeches. They are heavily salted with the words “I” and “my.” (He used the former 11 times in the first few paragraphs of his address to the U.N. last week.) Obama is a historic figure, but that is the beginning, not the end, of the story.
Even I didn’t count the “I’s” in his speech so it obviously bothered Fineman greatly. The speech apparently made the same sort of impression on him as it did others.
Additionally, Fineman notes something Obama is fond of using but that is beginning to wear very thin:
There is only so much political mileage that can still be had by his reminding the world that he is not George W. Bush. It was the winning theme of the 2008 campaign, but that race ended nearly a year ago. The ex-president is now more ex than ever, yet the current president, who vowed to look forward, is still reaching back to Bush as bogeyman.
He did it again in that U.N. speech. The delegates wanted to know what the president was going to do about Israel and the Palestinian territories. He answered by telling them what his predecessor had failed to do. This was effective for his first month or two. Now it is starting to sound more like an excuse than an explanation.
Remarkably, Fineman invokes – get ready for it – Ronald Regan as someone Obama badly needs to emulate:
The model is a man whose political effectiveness Obama repeatedly says he admires: Ronald Reagan. There was never doubt about what he wanted. The Gipper made his simple, dramatic tax cuts the centerpiece not only of his campaign but also of the entire first year of his presidency.
Obama seems to think he’ll get credit for the breathtaking scope of his ambition. But unless he sees results, it will have the opposite effect—diluting his clout, exhausting his allies, and emboldening his enemies.
And, as Fineman notes, that’s already begun to happen. Domestically his agenda is in a shambles, support is eroding faster than a pizza at a Weight Watcher’s convention and his political enemies are in full voice against him. Internationally, you can see the pack beginning to circle gauging how weak their prey is and what piece they can rip off of him before the bigger predators take their chunk of his hide.
Fineman’s other point is why that’s happening – Obama seems to think that if he appears enough times and says something enough times his words will carry the day. It is as if he thinks that constitutes leadership. If Obama does model himself after Reagan, it is only to emulate his communication ability while ignoring Reagan’s leadership abilities.
Fineman’s first paragraph really makes a worthy concluding one:
Despite his many words and television appearances, our elegant and eloquent president remains more an emblem of change than an agent of it. He’s a man with an endless, worthy to-do list—health care, climate change, bank reform, global capital regulation, AfPak, the Middle East, you name it—but, as yet, no boxes checked “done.” This is a problem that style will not fix. Unless Obama learns to rely less on charm, rhetoric, and good intentions and more on picking his spots and winning in political combat, he’s not going to be reelected, let alone enshrined in South Dakota.
So it isn’t just me, or those on the right who’re imagining things. In fact it seems our assessment was pretty objective. When the Howard Fineman’s of the world (don’t ever look for the leg-humping Chris Matthews or those of his ilk to have this sort of an awakening) begin to notice, it should be fairly obvious to everyone. If words were action, Barack Obama would be master of the world. But they’re not. The problem, as Fineman and other are learning, is Barack Obama has never had to put his words into action. That requires leadership – something he has never learned, never exercised and increasingly seems unwilling to take on (witness the delaying on A’stan while he sprints off to Copenhagen to do what he does best – talk – about the Olympics).
Fineman has defined the problem. But he can’t provide the solution. That can only come from one man. And to this point he hasn’t demonstrated he understands the problem much less the fact that he must provide the solution. In fact, as Fineman notes, he seems more caught up in himself and his words than ever. It could mean a long three years for both the Democrats and the country. And Fineman’s right, unless things change fairly rapidly, reelection is not something Obama should count on in 2012.