Why not debate it?
Were Obama a magnificent president in all respects, Trump’s charge would have little resonance. Who cares how Obama got into Harvard Law? In 2008, it was obvious enough to voters that he might have benefitted from preferences. He won a national majority anyway. But it turns out there are some ropes Obama doesn’t seem to have learned in his turbo-boosted ascent up the political hierarchy. He hasn’t been alert to some ingrained bureaucratic pathologies–he told Jon Alter he learned as president that “one of the biggest lies in government is the idea of ’shovel-ready’ projects.” Wish he hadn’t had to learn that! Nor does he appear to have acquired the skill–that someone like Bill Clinton would need to acquire to survive several terms as a governor–of making a policy sale. And would a leader versed in effectively wielding power declare that, say, the leader of the sovereign nation of Libya “needs to go” if he wasn’t willing to do what was necessary to make him go? Rookie mistake? The synecdoche–Obama himself as Exhibit A in the broader race preference policy debate–works now in a way it didn’t in the Fall of 2008.
I hope that next year, the people will decide that it was a mistake to make someone president just so they could feel like they aren’t racist.
[Update a few minutes later]
Time and again the President angers one side without conciliating the other. His public demand that Israel agree to a complete settlement freeze as a condition for peace talks alienated Israelis (and not just supporters of Prime Minister Netanyahu); his subsequent back peddling humiliated and angered the Palestinians. He pleased no one, fumbled what he had once proclaimed a crucial priority of his administration, and is left with reduced influence with both sides.
At home the President’s hedging has antagonized and energized the right without delivering the goods to his base on the left. The health care bill was so watered down from what candidate Obama proposed on the stump that key constituencies on the left were dismayed; the change was so large that the right was energized; the legislation so compromised and misshapen that it failed to satisfy. The stimulus was the same: large enough to stir up the deficit hawks but too small (and too poorly constructed) to launch a “V” shaped recovery. In the Middle East he has been too cautious and slow in siding with the revolutionaries to dent American unpopularity in the region — but by dropping US support for longtime ally Hosni Mubarak he antagonized and alarmed the Saudis.
Neither the Middle East despots nor the populists think President Obama is a reliable friend. In Afghanistan also he appears to have found a policy that is too robust to please the doves who want out no matter what — yet his hesitancy and announcement of withdrawal dates has not convinced either the Pakistanis or the Taliban that the US will remain until its basic conditions are met.
This repeated lunge for the sour spot — the place where costs are high and benefits are low — now seems to be a trademark of the President’s decision-making style. On the left it is earning him Carter comparisons from people like Eric Alterman; on the right it means that despite his compromises and yielding of significant ground he continues to feed the incandescent hostility of his bitterest foes. Worst of all, it suggests to people abroad and at home that the way to manipulate this “split the difference”, consensus-seeking President is to raise your demands. If you are going to get something like 50 percent of what you ask for, ask for twice as much as you really want. And with this Presidential style, the squeaking wheel gets the grease. Not surprisingly, all the wheels have begun to squeak.
The bad thing (or good thing, from the perspective of those who hope for a single term) is that he doesn’t seem capable of learning, or changing.