Obama Adept Abroad, Inept at Home

Unless Obama does a better job governing domestically, he will be a one-term president.

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Former President George W. Bush, send a Texas-size thank you note to POTUS—Barack Obama just saved your neck by ending the war in Iraq, which you waged with no provocation.

Eight years of war exacted a toll of a trillion dollars paid by the American people, thousands of all-volunteer Army soldiers who came home dead or maimed, and Iraq's uncounted casualties and ravaged civil society.

With that end in sight and the latest from Libya—a dictator's death and regime change—a dichotomy has emerged in the third autumn of Obama's presidency. Adept abroad and weak at home is the reputation he has earned.

[See photos of unrest in Libya.]

The president's finesse in foreign policy comes close to a golden touch. He picked up the pieces of Bush's military adventures and conducted the swift Osama bin Laden kill in a cozy walled compound—not the cave we heard about for years. Facing voters next fall, surely he'll remind them of this rip-roaring Navy SEAL success in Pakistan as well as quelling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan— and refrain from crowing he's "a war president."

Enigmatic and elegant to friends and foes alike, Obama's not as deft on the domestic front. Here at home, Obama has disappointed seas of supporters and independent voters who judge him starkly on the sadsack economy alone. Never mind healthcare reform. The cool head in the Oval Office doesn't get it: Joblessness is the war at home.

Another Texan president comes to mind as Obama's opposite. Lyndon B. Johnson's five years in the 1960s were a sharp contrast of social progress at home and a tragic war in Vietnam. In the end, America's only lost war tore the country and his presidency apart. He never got much of a thank you note for his landmark civil rights legislation. Johnson serves as a useful cautionary tale for Obama, not to veer to one extreme at the expense of the other.

When 14 million or more are unemployed and young people are camping out to "occupy" Wall Street in a mushrooming movement of discontent, you have a problem, Mr. President. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who is looking for work, be they 22 or 55. A whole generation of people near or at retirement age are holding on to their jobs longer out of financial fears, freezing the usual flow in and out of the workforce. Recent college graduates, awakening from apathy to anger, are losing faith the American dream will work for them.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Occupy Wall Street]

Yet it took two and a half years in office before Obama described the Great Recession haunting his entire presidency as an "emergency." Six weeks ago, he acted appropriately in a time of serious scarcity. He introduced a jobs bill; yet his party can't pass it in Congress. Americans struggling to save their houses, jobs, and families finally heard a note of urgency in his voice.

But they also knew Obama earlier agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for the well-off, instead of restoring the Bill Clinton tax code. Ultimately, Obama has not shared a sense he "feels your pain," so to speak, to bread and butter middle-class voters who made no gains over the last decade. In governing at home, he doesn't project a fundamental sense of fair play being violated on Main Street in favor of corporate excess and a widening income inequality gap.

Looking back to Johnson, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 before he became embroiled in the Vietnam War. He felt the bill's justice in his bones and politicked in the Senate and House as only he could, in a down-home, up-close way. Lawmakers found it hard to say no to Johnson as he wheedled, threatened, coerced, and bargained with them right in their faces or on late-night calls as he worked overtime. Same went for the so-called Master of the Senate's "Great Society" initiatives. For him, governing was personal.

[Read: Martin Luther King Joins Jefferson and Lincoln on the National Mall]

For a cerebral president like Obama, the globe is a chessboard of sorts, a game that takes place indoors with a small circle of advisors, in a secure room removed from the action. For a passionate president like Johnson, domestic policy comes easily as a ground game and contact sport, with lawmakers and constituents.

Obama summons more heart, soul, and empathy when he campaigns. To avoid Steve Jobs's blunt prediction he'll be a one-term president, he must show those sides as he governs on the hurting home front.

  • Vote now: Will Obama be a one-term president?
  • See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.
  • See photos of the "Occupy" protests.