If ubiquity were the measure of a presidency, Barack Obama would already be grinning at us from Mount Rushmore. But of course it is not. 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.
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.
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.
Members of Obama’s own party know who Obama is not; they still sometimes wonder who he really is. In Washington, the appearance of uncertainty is taken as weakness—especially on Capitol Hill, where a president is only as revered as he is feared. Being the cool, convivial late-night-guest in chief won’t cut it with Congress, an institution impervious to charm (especially the charm of a president with wavering poll numbers). Members of both parties are taking Obama’s measure with their defiant and sometimes hostile response to his desires on health care. Never much of a legislator (and not long a senator), Obama underestimated the complexity of enacting a major “reform” bill. Letting Congress try to write it on its own was an awful idea. As a balkanized land of microfiefdoms, each loyal to its own lobbyists and consultants, Congress is incapable of being led by its “leadership.” It’s not like Chicago, where you call a guy who calls a guy who calls Daley, who makes the call. The president himself must make his wishes clear—along with the consequences for those who fail to grant them.
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.
That may be starting to happen. Health-care legislation is still weeks, if not months, from passage, and the bill as it stands could well be a windfall for the very insurance and drug companies it was supposed to rein in. Climate-change legislation (a.k.a. cap-and-trade) is almost certainly dead for this year, which means that American negotiators will go empty-handed to the Copenhagen summit in December —pushing the goal of limiting carbon emissions even farther into the distance. In the spring Obama privately told the big banks that he was going to change the way they do business. It was going to be his way or the highway. But the complex legislation he wants to submit to Congress has little chance of passage this year. Doing Letterman again won’t help. It may boost the host’s ratings, Mr. President, but probably not your own.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country .