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Obama and Second Chances

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The voters who really matter are those who, like me, were willing to give Obama a chance the first time around, but who, after watching his performance over the last four years, are not at all sure that they are willing to give him another.

Many American voters didn’t think Obama deserved to be president in the first place and have no interest in giving him a second chance this time around. Obviously there is no point in the Democrats trying to win them over to their cause. Similarly, there are still lots of Americans who will vote for Obama no matter what—and the Democrats need not waste time or resources persuading them to do what they are going to do anyway. This means that the voters who really matter are those who, like me, were willing to give Obama a chance the first time around, but who, after watching his performance over the last four years, are not at all sure that they are willing to give him another. We aren’t racists or right-wing fanatics. We are just worried—not because we think Obama is a mad socialist or crypto-Muslim, but because we fear he just isn’t up to the job of being president. In short, we are the people that need to be convinced to vote for Obama a second time, because if we don’t vote for him—or simply don’t vote at all—he is in danger of becoming another failed president, like the ill-fated Jimmy Carter.

You don’t have to be a member of the Tea Party to think that President Obama’s four years in office have not exactly been an unqualified success. The same position characterizes the attitude of most thoughtful liberals, as well. The gap between the intoxicating promise of Obama the candidate and the disappointing performance of Obama the president is too palpable for all but the most diehard Obama loyalists to ignore. Hence the acute discomfort among the president’s supporters when Romney revived the old Ronald Reagan line that had been used so tellingly against incumbent Jimmy Carter back in 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

True, in the first heady moments of the Democratic convention, it seemed as if the Democrats were actually prepared to answer this challenge with a resounding "yes." But sanity eventually returned, and a compromise with reality was reached. Osama bin Laden, all agreed, was certainly not better off than he was four years ago, and that should be enough for every patriotic American, never mind those disheartening reports on unemployment. Yet this compromise with reality came at a price. If the Democrats couldn’t hope to persuade the general public that the first Obama administration was a success, then on what grounds could they ask the electorate to give the president a second term?

To deal with this uncomfortable dilemma, Obama’s supporters have hit upon a plausible strategy. Admit that Obama’s first term was not all that they wished, but that, even so, the president deserves a second chance.

This line of argument can be seen in an op-ed piece written by the editors of the New York Times the day after Obama delivered his acceptance speech. Appropriately entitled “President Obama’s Second Chance,” the editorial was virtually an endorsement of the president, but a very odd kind of endorsement. For, after all, what kind of person gets a second chance, and under what conditions are we willing to give him one?

The gap between the intoxicating promise of Obama the candidate and the disappointing performance of Obama the president is too palpable for all but the most diehard Obama loyalists to ignore.

Normally we decide to give a person a second chance only after he has flubbed up his first one. It is not the kid who has passed his exam with flying colors who is given a chance to take the test a second time, but the kid who has flunked it. And even then, we don’t permit every kid who flunks a test to take it over again, but only those who can offer a reasonably good excuse for their poor performance. For example, if Johnny receives an F on his biology quiz because his house burned down the night before, we will probably give him a break. On the other hand, we will be less inclined to give Johnny a second chance if he tells us that he and his buddies went out and got drunk the night before. In short, we are more apt to give someone a second chance the more we are convinced that his original failure was not his own fault, but due to circumstances beyond his control.

It is reasonable to assume that the editors of the New York Times understand that, by definition, second chances are only given to failures, if they are given at all. Yet they couldn’t quite come out and say, “The Republicans are right. The Obama administration has been a total failure. Vote for him again.” Therefore, they began by assuring us that Obama’s first term has not been the abysmal failure that many people think it has: “President Obama’s dilemma has always been that he has been far more successful a president than his opponents claim, but far less successful than he needs to be at making voters see that.” Or, to put this point somewhat less opaquely, Obama’s failure in convincing the public that his administration has been a success is largely due to his lack of success in convincing voters that it hasn’t been a failure. Got that?

Of course, this is still a kind of failure—an odd kind of failure for a successful president, if you think about it, since successful presidents usually don’t need to spend much energy on making voters see that they have been successful. (Does anyone really believe that Eisenhower, the model of a successful president, had superior communication skills to Obama?) But the argument that Obama has been more successful than he has allowed Americans to think turns out to be merely a feint. For what the editors of the Times really mean is that Obama did a lousy job of casting the blame for his failure on someone else—that is, until the night of his acceptance speech, when, according to the Times, Obama at last abandoned “the maddening coyness of recent years in which he has avoided candidly talking about the mess that President George W. Bush dumped into his lap.” (Personally I hadn’t noticed Obama’s maddening coyness on this point, but I am willing to take the New York Times’s word for it.) But observe what the Times is commending the president for—namely, for finally explaining that the failure of his first term was not really his fault at all, but George W. Bush’s.

We are more apt to give someone a second chance the more we are convinced that his original failure was not his own fault, but due to circumstances beyond his control.

Of course, there are other good candidates beside Bush to take the blame. Jeff Shesol, in his review of Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics, attributes Obama’s failure to “the radicalization of the GOP”—i.e., the Tea Party caucus’s take-over of Congress. Indeed, there is no reason why defenders of Obama could not combine the two excuses. First came the mess left by Bush, second came the Tea Party with its zealotry and fanaticism. How could anyone blame Obama for his inability to surmount these obstacles?

It was former President Clinton, however, who, in his rousing speech at the Democratic convention, offered the grandest and most comprehensive excuse of all—Obama was elected to the office of the presidency at one of those rare moments in history when virtually no president could have succeeded, not even Clinton himself. Yet the unwitting—or perhaps just slightly witting—effect of Clinton’s rhetorical fireworks was to make the American electorate more inclined to give Clinton a third chance rather than President Obama a second one.

Yet the argument that Obama was bound to fail, no matter how we try to dress it up, simply falls flat. It doesn’t square with our own commonsense intuitions about failure.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of failure. First, there is the understandable failure, which we are quick to forgive. Second, there is the unforgivable failure, which we are at a loss to understand. If a five-year-old tries to climb Mount Everest and fails in his first attempt, we certainly don’t hold this against him. Here we have an understandable failure. But we take an altogether different view of the matter when a major league baseball player, who has just signed a multimillion-dollar contract, commits an error that would bring tears of shame to any self-respecting Little Leaguer. We expect more from him and, even if we are his most devoted fans, we find ourselves unnerved by his amateurish antics.

What the editors of the Times really mean is that Obama did a lousy job of casting the blame for his failure on someone else.

Obama is not the kid who tried to climb Mount Everest. He is the major league player who signed the multimillion-dollar contract. His was not the understandable failure, but the kind of failure that even his most ardent well-wishers find it difficult to forgive. Indeed, despite their best efforts to offer excuses for Obama, even the editors of the Times cannot conceal their exasperated grievance against him, as shown by the following quote: “After he was elected, Mr. Obama allowed himself to believe in his own legend, cheered on by the hundreds of thousands of adoring supporters who thronged his inauguration … It was as though he concluded that his election by itself changed the world and had fulfilled his promise of a postpartisan era.”

This is a pretty damning characterization of the president. It is a refrain of the old charge that Obama regards himself as a messiah-like figure whose mere coming would herald in the golden age. The difference is that this time the charge is not coming from Obama’s critics on the Right, but from his defenders on the Left. And make no mistake about the charge in question. We are not talking about a flawed presidency, but a flawed personality—and that is precisely what is so troubling to those voters who, having given Obama a chance once, are now being asked to give him another.

The proponents of giving the president a second chance have yet to explain how a subdued and chastened Obama, who presumably no longer believes in his own legend, and hears no more the cheers of his adoring worshippers, will be a more effective leader than the extravagantly hyped Obama of four years ago, who believed that his mere coming would rid the world of all its ills. Messiahs get only one chance.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “Thucydides in London: Would the Ancient Greeks Approve of Our Modern Olympics?,” “‘It’s Not About Crime, It’s About Values,’” and “Scalia’s Wise Dissent.” Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg outline “Obama’s Weakness in Historical Context.” Jonah Goldberg says “Obama's Problem? His Record.” Michael Barone argues “Obama's First Term is Like FDR's Dismal Second.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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