When he ran for president, Barack Obama was one of the most inspirational candidates in a long time, able to draw huge numbers of new voters to the polls by engaging them with a message of change and hope.
Now that he has been in office for two months, reality is overtaking charisma. Obama's positive aura is dissipating under the relentless pressure to get results and make compromises. He is colliding with the same dynamic that other recent presidents have faced—Washington's divisive and cynical atmosphere, and problems, such as healthcare and overuse of fossil fuels, that are endlessly complex and seemingly intractable.
Obama is facing an additional problem that has been little noticed by the media and little discussed by his own strategists, at least in public. He is turning out to be what he said he wouldn't be: a polarizing figure. Each of his immediate predecessors was popular with core members of his own party—Bill Clinton with Democrats, George W. Bush with Republicans—but alienated the other side. That's what's happening to Obama as his ratings remain strong with fellow Democrats but slide with Republicans. Independents remain up for grabs.
Obama is learning the limits of his inspirational brand of leadership. In Washington, a mass movement, even one propelled by a dramatic slogan such as Obama's "Change We Can Believe In," gets a president only so far. Obama's movement is essentially a liberal one aimed at using government to improve American life and lift the economy out of its current crisis. But this has little or no impact on less-government legislators from safe conservative districts and states or interest groups that are immune or opposed to the liberal agenda, especially the aggressive use of the federal government to right society's wrongs.
Obama continues to be more popular than his policies. The share of Americans who approve of his job performance is hovering at about 60 percent, a healthy number, but his calls for vast increases in government spending and his energy agenda, especially his plan to impose limits on carbon emissions, draw far less support. This could mean that he is in for more trouble in selling his ideas, no matter how much people like him personally.
Obama's theory is that America isn't divided fifty-fifty, as it was under George W. Bush. Instead, Obama believes there is a sensible center that will ally itself with the Democrats or the Republicans, depending on which side offers the most effective and pragmatic solutions to the country's problems, according to Democratic strategists close to the White House. And like Ronald Reagan, Obama refrains from attacking his opponents' personal qualities. "Reagan was a decent guy who had the best interests of the country at heart," says historian Richard Norton Smith. "Obama has a similar following."
Yet on Capitol Hill, his lack of animus didn't help him with his adversaries. Nearly all Republicans opposed Obama's stimulus package, and they still aren't impressed with the rest of his agenda. There also is increasing resistance from moderate and conservative Democrats, who are very worried about the trillion-dollar deficits and massive government interventions that Obama is proposing. The critics worry that Obama is leaning too far toward solutions from Washington rather than the private sector and individual initiative.
The limits of charisma were also evident during Obama's trip to Europe. He hoped to demonstrate a commitment to multilateral cooperation and wanted to persuade other leaders to adopt his economic policies. European leaders want him to play an insider's game of diplomacy and negotiation, instead of emphasizing the rock-star events at which Obama is so adept. And he appears to get it. For example, Obama set a tone of quiet conciliation in his prime-time news conference in late March in the East Room. He said his first goal in Europe is to "say to all countries, let's do what's necessary in order to create jobs and to get the economy moving again."
Earlier, he emphasized the humility he championed during the campaign in an op-ed published by 31 newspapers around the world. "I know that America bears our share of responsibility for the mess that we all face," the president wrote. "But I also know that we need not choose between a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism and an oppressive, government-run economy."
Whether his arguments make much of a difference in Europe—or at home—remains to be seen. But it's clear that charisma won't be enough.
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