The last time I was in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, President Obama was in the midst of a very visible crisis and I was not impressed by the man he had found to handle it. Oil was vomiting from BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico—cable TV was showing the ghastly flow live—but the federal official tasked with ending the siege, soon-to-be-retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, seemed way too ponderously bureaucratic for the job. In the Roosevelt Room, beneath a picture of the hard-charging TR, he sat stiffly at the conference table. In a laborious, jargon-cluttered presentation, Allen tried to convince me and other wise-guy reporters that he had everything under control. After all, he was the government’s “national incident commander"! Most of us in the room were predictably hysterical. The gulf was dead, as was the way of life it supported. We tauntingly quoted Malia Obama: “Plug the hole, Daddy!” she’d said—a disaster movie in the making.
Well, as we all now know, the BP hole is plugged, and while the damage to the gulf and the life around it was severe, it was not the apocalypse that world-class marine biologists such as James Carville thought it would be. BP is on the hook for $20 billion in damages, and America’s Solomon, Kenneth Feinberg, is doling out the dough. But the president gets minimal credit because his gulf achievement—and Allen’s—was comparative and abstract. They had avoided what would have been a worse catastrophe. It was a triumph, but in the past imperfect tense.
The BP crisis and its political aftermath are apt symbols for what ails, and what ultimately might save, the president and the Democrats. They are going to get hammered in November. He and they overpromised and underperformed. But if they avoid a blowout it will in part be because voters see the Obama that is, not the fiction they worshiped or dreaded. He is the plodding “national incident commander” for our beleaguered era, and his accomplishments—to the extent he has them—so far are mostly about how our predicament would have been worse had it not been for his bailing of water. It’s a hard message to sell in the midst of 9.5 percent unemployment, when dollar discount stores are all the rage, and the gap between the rich and everyone else in the country is as wide as it has been since the Progressive Era.
But he is what he is. To get a real fix on our 44th president and what he has done—or not done—it’s best to leave behind the grandiose language and grand expectations. He is a singular, history-making character, yet he is best defined by what he is not. He is neither the we-are-the-change savior his acolytes saw early on, nor is he the radical his foes see now. Obama is labeled a socialist by the hungriest recipients of government welfare in the history of commerce—Wall Street banks—but he is nothing more nor less than a legalistic believer in the regulatory state.
He is branded an alien Islamist by the same conservatives who would, in another context, celebrate his Alger-like rise to prominence from ethnic obscurity. And he is derided as timorous and unskilled by the same Democratic insiders whose clocks he cleaned in 2008—and by the same reporters (including me) who didn’t see him coming, and who had no real idea what Facebook was until it hit 'em in the face. Oddly, his foes think he is viciously effective; it’s only his friends who think he is ineffectual.
In fact, he’s neither. Halfway into his second year, we can see that he is just a smart but cautious guy who succeeds by dogged effort and not by eloquence (he really isn’t very eloquent) or by grand gesture. Critics on the left and right—from Paul Krugman to Sarah Palin—can say what they want, but the truth is that Obama and his team did help avoid, or forestall, a global economic collapse, in part because his demeanor was cool and his ability to grasp the details (and desire to do so) was evident well before he was even elected.
That told “the markets” that adult supervision and a steady hand were on the way. Yes, the “stimulus” was a throw-it-against-the-wall mess, but it also had some tangible results in jobs saved and deeper recession avoided, and those results came and now come, and at a time when a sense of governmental motion was critical. The official arbiters of business cycles just declared that the recession ended in mid-2009. Recovery is anemic, to be sure, but the system survived.
Obama is a victim of the overheated rhetoric of his aides (“never let a crisis go to waste”) and his own evident desire to make more history than he made by merely being who he was. The vast health-care and financial-services bills were, taken as a whole, a political disaster when described in grand terms. But in their granular details are specific measures that do specific good for specific Americans: family-based insurance for kids up to 26; no dumping or automatic denial of beneficiaries; tight supervision of credit-card rates and of the deliberately impenetrable terminology banks use in consumer transactions. The health-care features go into effect this week. The president doesn’t have the rhetorical chops to tout such items with Clintonian, kitchen-table vividness (you can just imagine Big Dog with all this material to work with). But that doesn’t mean the incremental achievements aren’t real.
Obama was elected as a sensation, but he is isn’t governing as one. He is putting points on the board, sometimes with little notice and comparatively less fuss than either was anticipated or was the case in the past: a pay-equity law for women; two quite liberal justices on the U.S. Supreme Court (without a filibuster in a filibuster-mad Senate); a renewal of Mideast peace talks. Road and bridge projects, however delayed, are now underway—bright spots in the much-derided Stim. “I didn’t vote for it because I wasn’t in the Senate yet,” says Sen. Al Franken. “But everywhere I go in Minnesota the people thank me for it.”
On a personal level, there is much to be said for Obama—though little of it has been said. Again, his achievement is in the negative: the absence of disaster or embarrassment. He isn’t the egregious and impeached glamour hog/party guy that Clinton was, to be specific. For all his purported charisma, he’d rather shoot hoops and watch ESPN and play horse with his daughters than go to a party. He has an odd but useful gift for siphoning the tension out of things, including his own private life.
I write this knowing that it will be seen by some as a parting valentine to the president. It isn’t meant as such. As a NEWSWEEK reporter and columnist for more years than I can count, I am paid to make judgments, some of them harsh. But I try to remember to step back and try to see the panorama, not just the particular. I hold no brief for any politician or persuasion, and never have. When Bush was president, I was widely accused of giving him too many breaks early on. Same with Obama now. But as I leave the magazine to write full time for the Huffington Post, I can say this about the president. It could have been worse. And if we aren’t careful, it probably will be.