A decade ago, when Barack Obama ran for Congress (his only losing race to date), his opponent, incumbent Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush, called his youthful challenger an “educated fool.” As most accounts of this long-forgotten race have it, Rush’s charges stung.
This was the first time anyone had seriously questioned Obama’s qualifications for elective office. It was also the first time anyone dared ask whether the elite education Obama acquired at Harvard Law School, Columbia, Occidental College, and the exclusive Punahou School in Honolulu, and the associations he had forged in the “Never Never Lands” of Cambridge and Hyde Park, had ill-prepared him to address the problems of ordinary Americans.
A good many of Obama’s fellow citizens are asking themselves that very question today. According to the ABC News/Washington Post poll, nearly 6 in 10 voters say they lack faith in Obama’s ability to make the right decisions. A clear majority disapproves of how he is handling the economy. Administration spokesmen claim not to be surprised. With so much bad economic news, how might it be otherwise? Their problem, as well as the president’s, is that the public may begin to think of him as the personification of bad news. With his approval rating hovering at 45 percent, Obama may be entering that critical danger zone from which most presidents who enter it do not return. Congressman Rush may know why.
As he galloped his way up the political ranks, Obama actually encountered less resistance on his way to the White House than he had when he sought to displace an entrenched congressman. Buoyed by a strong narrative, an attractive personality, and considerable charm, Obama never had to zero in on real people’s problems. Nor had he been long enough in positions of power to be able to solve them. Two years ago, voters yearning for someone to lead them, projected onto Obama all their private hopes of what a president should be. Once in office, unable to use experience as his guide, Obama did what someone with his background might be expected to do. He advanced a number of theories--many untested, and all the products of people whose experience working with ordinary Americans was as limited as his. He then used the powers of his office and the skills of Chicago hands and one particularly canny Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) to enact them. As flaws in their particular designs (a failed stimulus package, hidden costs in healthcare projections, misguided energy policies) emerged, Obama stuck with them. With polls showing that the economy, and its stubborn unemployment rate of just under 10 percent, were first and foremost on the public mind, Obama kept his focus on almost anything else: healthcare, cap and trade, immigration, potential trials for Gitmo detainees in New York, housing construction in Jerusalem. Repeatedly, the public was told that the president was poised to “pivot.” As time went on, it became clear that, unlike Bill Clinton, here was not a fellow prepared to focus on the economy “like a laser beam.”
Obliging Obama’s ambition to be a “transformational” president, the editors of Time put him on its cover in the garb of Franklin Roosevelt (cigarette holder and all). Yet, 18 months into his term, Obama more closely resembles a different predecessor--and another highly educated one--who also proved to disappoint. Contrary to the picture historians have painted of him, Herbert Hoover failed as president not because he stood idly by and not because he had a callous indifference to human suffering (Obama take heart), but because he put so much faith in systems, organizations, and procedures. Fix these, he believed, and all problems that affected human beings would be solved. And boy did he try. Congressman Bobby Rush called Obama an “educated fool” to his face. Outgoing President Calvin Coolidge referred to the incoming Hoover behind his back as “Wonder Boy.”
Hoover’s initial response to the Great Depression was to jawbone companies to keep employment and wages up (some around Obama want him to press companies to spend assets, regardless of the demand for goods and services), increase public spending and debt (that Obama has already done), demonize Wall Street and sermonize about greed (check) turned toward protectionism (hello?), and, yes, raise taxes--a lot (bye, bye Bush tax cuts, hello national sales tax and higher fees).
The one mistake Hoover made that Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke did not allow Obama to repeat was to raise interest rates. This, however, may not be enough to reverse Obama’s fortunes. Voters seem not to be in the mood to sit comfortably back and wait for the president to adjust his means or change his ways. Is it any wonder that presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs thinks the Republicans can take control of the House in four months? He is correct when he confessed to being honest.