What to Make of the Ironic Mr. Obama
How many ironies can a single presidency engender? Barack Obama is a detached man who has inspired fierce loyalties, and a cool man who has aroused both warm feelings of affection and a fiery opposition.
He loves to engage conservatives, yet few of them have chosen to engage him. He is seen as too moderate by parts of the left, but the right thinks he has a radical statist agenda.
Wall Street’s critics believe Obama’s approach to rescuing the financial system amounts to coddling the bankers and financial scammers who got us into this mess. But many on the Street say Obama doesn’t understand them and fear he is a secret populist who would displace finance as the dominant force in the American economy.
On torture, Obama sought a middle ground: He ended the practice, disclosed what happened, and then proposed we move on. Yet the right opposed disclosure, parts of the left wanted more accountability, and their fight brought back all of the bitterness Obama wants to put behind us.
The man not only defies labels. He hates them. At a briefing for columnists last week to influence the coming 100-day assessments, a senior Obama adviser, struggling to offer a philosophical definition of the 44th president, finally settled on calling him “a devout non-ideologue.”
But the mysteries and paradoxes of these 100 days cannot be unraveled without an understanding that the president is more than a “whatever works” guy. Obama would not inspire such loyalty if his supporters did not see (correctly) that he has an agenda to move the country to a very different place. He would not inspire such resistance if his opponents did not sense exactly the same thing.
There can be no denying that if Obama succeeds, government will play a larger role in American life because access to health care will be guaranteed by Washington and the financial system will face much tougher rules. The federal government will be influencing education and its financing more than it does now, and will push the country toward reliance on a new mix of energy sources.
It’s equally clear that the financing for all this will depend more heavily on taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans, and assistance to the neediest Americans will grow. As one social activist to Obama’s left who was closely involved in the stimulus fight observed, “When it has the opportunity, the administration always puts its thumb on the scale in favor of doing more for the poor.” Obama doesn’t tout that fact, and he is not a radical egalitarian. But he certainly is for more equality.
In foreign affairs, the picture is blurrier, partly because this is an area in which Obama really is opposed to an ideological approach. This is precisely what separates him from the previous administration. Without question, the pragmatic Obama is winning the United States new friends in the world. He will need to show how this new affection translates into support for American positions and material help for American undertakings.
The first 100 of the 1,461 days allocated to a presidential term are an imperfect predictor of how a leader will ultimately be judged. But they do offer a clear look at a president’s style. Obama, on the whole, has been as crisp a decision-maker and as calm an influence on his aides and his country as he was during the campaign.
But the most intriguing aspect of Obama’s presidency so far may be the way in which he combines intelligence and intellect. The two are quite different, as Richard Hofstadter noted more than four decades ago in his instructive book, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.”
Intelligence, Hofstadter argued, is an “unfailingly practical quality” that “works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals.” Intellect, on the other hand, is the mind’s “creative and contemplative side” that “examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines.”
For Obama’s base of progressive and liberal supporters, it is his intellectual side that draws such fierce loyalty and admiration, while his conservative foes mistrust the very part of him that imagines and dreams — because they do not share his dreams.
But Obama’s continued high standing in the polls rests on the great middle of the electorate that doesn’t care if he’s intellectual as long as he is smart enough to fix things. Obama and his aides know this, which is why our intellectually inclined president will continue to sow mystery by casting himself as a mechanic, a problem-solver and “a devout non-ideologue.”
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
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