Moral fibre is what separates a great leader from a merely clever one. Six years into his made-for-history presidency, no one doubts Barack Obama is indeed a clever man. In speech after speech, Obama has displayed a remarkable understanding of issues, hewing unerringly to the moral core of every single one.
He also looks very presidential — millennial-cool and above the fray, almost felinely graceful as he ambles up to the podium in the Rose Garden. If he walks like a great president and quacks like one, he must be a great president. Correct?
Not really. As he enters the last stretch of his presidency, with the labels for an Obama legacy swirling in the summer heat in Washington DC, not even his most ardent supporters are imputing greatness to the 44th president.
And not even his doughty PR team at the White House, which often portrays him in partisan, anti-Republican terms. As it turns out, the PR team also refers to the president as a “bear” when he plays truant — as in “the bear is loose” for when he cuts away from his schedule to, say, walk across a park to the Starbucks a block away from the White House.
Perhaps meant to project an image of deliberation and strength, “bear” is a somewhat ingenuous way to describe Obama, a lanky man with a loping gait.
Unlike him, a bear is the opposite of cerebral. It is uncouth and prone to a quick temper. A panther, on the other hand, is a more satisfyingly complex creature, smooth and fluid, suggesting strategy and design.
When “the bear is loose”, sometimes cutting through Lafayette Park next to the White House to Starbucks, sometimes through the National Mall grounds, it causes a flutter among tourists and bystanders, like a rock flung carelessly at a flock of pigeons.
There is much squawking, some selfies, signing of autographs and cooings of delight by middle-aged women. The most powerful man in the world just being a regular guy, an “aam aadmi” in America, on Twitter at the hashtag #TheBearIsLoose.
These jaunts, which began earlier this year, are getting more frequent as the year passes. It may be more than the desire to get out of the “Washington bubble” that is driving them though. They could be a quest for reaffirmation as Obama confronts a weak legacy marked by a remarkable degree of partisan battles.
“What I have said to my team is ‘Get me out of Washington’,” Obama said on 9 July at a meeting in Texas to raise money for the mid-term elections due later this year. But he refused to visit the border, which is in crisis as thousands of immigrant children pour in.
Nonetheless, the president will continue to mingle. This whole summer, Obama is scheduled to travel out of Washington almost every week to meet ordinary Americans, almost as if to say that he finds governing tedious. Or that providing ordinary people the thrill of a chance encounter is adequate recompense for their vote. While he basks in the glow of their surprise and his own consequence.
The suddenness of these forays into everyday Americana can lead to curious situations. In Colorado, where marijuana is now legal, a man who offered the president a smoke of the newly-legal drug posted a video clip of Obama laughing awkwardly inside a crowded bar as he is asked: “Do you want a hit?”
There is plenty awaiting presidential attention, if Obama wants to “do” presidency rather than just “be” in it. In Iraq, the US has still not decided whether it will help drive the militants out of their newly-formed Caliphate, where sharia rules. Russia is menacing Ukraine. Again. China is drilling for oil in disputed waters off Vietnam, as naval destroyers stand guard.
Relations with Germany are at an all-time post-War low over spy charges, first over the CIA listening in to President Angela Merkel’s cell phone. Then over the CIA Berlin station chief’s expulsion after two German double agents were found to have passed on secrets. There is North Korea. Iran. Syria. The world.
Even if historians judge the Obama presidency a success overall on the strength of the healthcare reform alone, there can be little question that Obama has failed on one obvious count: he has failed to meet widespread expectations of post-partisan greatness in 2008.
That his race impacted his presidency is also beyond question. Though not entirely in a negative way: As a black man occupying the country’s highest office for the first time, he has proved beyond doubt that he is more than intellectually equal to the job, a necessary step in black empowerment.
But how much of his inability to unite all of America can be blamed on his experience as a black man and how much on his politics? Is his progressive ideology a refuge from a hostile politics or has it, in fact, been the cause of hostility from the Right?
Speaking on a news show on 13 July, Attorney General Eric Holder, himself a black man, said race was a component in criticism of the Obama presidency.
“There’s a certain level of vehemence, it seems to me, that’s directed at me and the president… I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some there’s a racial animus,” he said.
At least some of this perception can be traced to black sensitivities, an almost palpable touchiness that tends to see every criticism as lack of respect for the president.
In comparison, insults about previous incumbent George W Bush’s intellectual deficiencies were more widespread in his second term, if anything.
Some on the Right see Obama implementing a dark conspiracy against America itself. They claim he is wilfully hastening America’s decline, implementing a post-colonial, anti-imperial vision that he inherited from his disenchanted Kenyan father. Needless to say, this is an extreme view.
Recently, the Republican leader in the lower House of Congress John Boehner announced that he would sue the president in court for trying to sidestep Congress and make his own laws.
“Sue him! Impeach him!” Obama mocked Republicans at the Texas fundraiser, “Really? Really? For what? You are going to sue me for doing my job?” he said to partisan cheers, playing the crowd for effect.
But it was not always like that. A long, long time ago…
When he burst upon the national scene in 2004, in a speech the conservative Wall Street Journal called “electrifying” and one of the “greatest political statements of the 21st century”, his voice was a sharp, startling cry for the evanescent Middle.
Speaking three years after 9/11 and a year after the start of the Iraq misadventure, at the Democratic Party convention that ratified John Kerry as candidate, he said: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America… There is not a Black America and a White America — there’s the United States of America.”
Six years into his presidency, and several stirring speeches later, America is split right down the middle, and along every ethnic cranny and crevice in between.
Carried to the crest of every soaring speech and then dumped unceremoniously on the cold shores of inaction, Americans are now beginning to suspect that what they mistook for judiciousness was perhaps moral equivocation.
The crisis at the border caused a black mother in Texas to attack immigration policies, a rarity within a community that has been overwhelmingly loyal to Obama. “What about the kids here? In our neighbourhood?” she asked in an interview aired on local television, observing that the children just needed to “go back”.
There are other signs of a more general decline in Obama’s popularity. In a 2 July survey by the reputed Quinnipiac University, Obama was voted the worst president since World War II, beating George W Bush for the doubtful honour by five points (33-28). They also picked Republican torchbearer Ronald Reagan as the best post-War president, ahead of even John F Kennedy.
So far, Obama has not made history. History made him. He just happens to be at the right place at the right time.