January 02, 2017
In an in-depth interview after the election, President Obama’s most memorable line was his confident proclamation that he would have beaten President-elect Trump if he had run in 2016.
This highlighted a similarity between Obama and Trump. Both men, when challenged, quickly point to polls or election results, like an athlete trying to end a schoolyard debate by pointing to the scoreboard.
It’s fitting that Obama should leave office this way, the way he’s answered many challenges throughout the past eight years, by trumpeting his skill at winning elections. Because winning elections, it turns out, was nearly the sum total of the president’s political virtues.
Obama’s most admired traits, his oratory, intelligence, quick wit and unique background, were all attributes for running and winning elections, and getting donors to part with their money. What he never showed were skills for coalition-building, legislating, persuading rivals and deal-making — that is, for governing.
“I serve as a blank screen,” Obama explained in one of his pre-presidency memoirs, “on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” He was correct, and the 2016 results confirm it. Millions of his voters from 2008 and 2012 became Trump voters in 2016, enough to swing the election, and it was Obama’s eloquent vagueness that made this possible.
Being a blank screen is good for a candidate but is a bad trait in a leader. A leader lays out a direction and convinces people to follow him to a shared goal. If you never identify what you are fighting, never declare which way you’re going and always let everyone think you’re facing whichever way they are, any forward marching you inspire will tear the country asunder rather than move it forward together.
Obama’s other character traits, unmistakable after the past eight years, also lend themselves wonderfully to campaigning and horribly to governing.
The president’s impermeable self-regard was surely an asset on the campaign trail. A man who could pen two memoirs before age 45 has the requisite self-confidence to convince voters and donors that he can be president after less than one term in the U.S. Senate. Obama’s self-confidence was incandescent, and it caused literal swooning at his campaign rallies and figurative swooning from the press.
Yet Obama’s self-confidence shaded into overweening vanity and arrogance after he seated himself in the Oval Office, and it prevented him from learning from his mistakes or seeing his own flaws, however clearly they were shoved in his face. Two years into his first term, Obama’s party took a historic drubbing. Democrats lost more than 60 House seats and six Senate seats. Republicans also gained a handful of governors’ mansions and took nearly 700 state legislative seats away from Democrats. Obama replied to this clear and thorough rejection by saying he had merely failed to communicate clearly how much good he was doing.
When on the ballot again in 2012, Obama did the one thing he does so well: he got people to vote for him. Then when his party was further wiped out in 2014, he refused to take any lesson from it, instead, laughably explaining that he would instead listen to those who didn’t vote.
His certainty in his own rectitude, his conviction that he was, in his beloved phrase, “on the right side of history,” meant that solid evidence that he was wrong made no impression on his thinking and deflected him not a jot from his messianic left-liberal path.
Obama’s self-regard and his elevation of electoral success above other virtues made it impossible for him to deal well with Congress. He famously waved away GOP budget ideas early on by telling then-House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, “Elections have consequences. And, Eric, I won.” But the only elections he would allow to have consequences in his thinking were those in which he triumphed, not those in which voters delivered resounding rebukes.
During a 2010 healthcare summit where Obama was supposedly seeking GOP input, Sen. John McCain expressed concerns about the special interest deals with the drug lobby, and the “Louisiana Purchase.” Obama shut this down, again, by pointing to the scoreboard. “We’re not campaigning anymore,” he said, “the election is over.”
This disdainful dismissal of opponents won cheers on the campaign trail, such as his now-infamous dig at Mitt Romney that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for foreign policy back.” But what won votes in the ballot box didn’t win votes on Capitol Hill, even among his own party, or public support for his policies. Since his party lost its Senate supermajority, he failed in his legislative attempts, most notably on climate policy and gun control. And his party has been demolished.
Democrats had 29 governorship’s when Obama took office. The number is now 18 and falling. His party controlled legislatures in 27 states in 2009. They have only a dozen states today. Republicans control the House, the Senate and the White House.
Perhaps Obama is right in his self-assessment that he would have won again had he been able to seek a third term. Who knows? Winning elections is what Obama does. It’s governing where he proved himself an utter failure.