Who is President Barack Obama? The question gives you pause, doesn't it? That's because there is no quick or obvious answer. This circumstance, more than any other, is a critical problem for Obama as he prepares for the 112th Congress to assume office. We still don't know who Obama is, what he is committed to and what he truly stands for.
Don't get me wrong; there has been real ambition and method to the Obama presidency over the past two years. There have also been a number of significant achievements of the presidency, including the financial recovery, saving GM and Chrysler, the health-care reform bill and major financial reform. But he remains a president defined more by the relentless flow of events and competing media narratives around him than by his own actions, agenda and bearing.
That ill-defined quality is due, I think, to his dogged pursuit of the three R's — in this case, not reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, but responsibility, reasonableness and doing the right thing. And in pursuit of these three goals, Obama has adopted a very professorial posture.
He entered office as the avatar of bipartisanship, a leader committed to setting a new tone for national politics. He was going to be reasonable with those on the other side of the political aisle because that was one of the promises he made during the campaign. He also started out committed to doing the right thing.
This comes through in a number of ways, not the least of which was the high priority he placed on health-care reform. It is more than shameful for the world's most affluent nation to be a place where millions of its citizens do not have real health-care coverage and where a serious illness can bring a family to total financial ruin. It was the right thing to commit to doing better for all Americans.
In his inaugural address, Obama signaled that the practice of avoiding big, looming challenges was over: The moment had arrived to take responsibility today for the kind of America we want a future generation to inherit tomorrow.
Although it is one decision of his that troubles me personally, Obama's judgment to strengthen institutions in Afghanistan and challenge the Taliban insurgency is one sign of his commitment to taking responsibility today for problems that otherwise will hound us into the future.
In too many respects, however, his approach to the three R's has been pursued as largely a matter of the mind, not the meeting of political savvy and pointedly articulated moral conviction. His presidency is playing out like a course taught by a scholar who has a brilliant mind but who is unable to excite or engage the students in the classroom. Obama the candidate did a much better job than Obama the president has in reconciling the roles of manager and CEO with the need to articulate and lead on behalf of a cause and a vision.
In fairness, Obama entered office faced with a scale of challenges that no other newly elected president has confronted in the post-World War II age. Obama's predecessor handed him a $1.2 trillion deficit, two seriously mismanaged wars, doubt about the justification and rationality of American actions in foreign policy, and a global financial system on the verge of complete collapse. To make matters worse, not only did the party out of power seek ways to strategically advance its cause, but Republicans also eagerly took up the most obstructionist, "just say no" posture seen in recent political memory.
Moreover, the media environment has never been more treacherous. Obama has encountered an unprecedented media vitriol that is engulfingly poisonous, without standards and increasingly anchored by a few overtly partisan outposts, like arch-conservative Rush Limbaugh on the radio and the decidedly unfair and unbalanced Fox News on television.
And yet, Obama is coming to the close of his second full year in office as only vaguely in focus. I am not alone among his supporters in still desperately searching for a defining narrative for the man and his presidency. That is not a good situation. That is much of what makes him vulnerable to all the mass-media-generated negativity.
Seeking to do the right things in a reasonable way, and to take responsibility for big problems now, is not enough. To be sure, the commitment to thoughtful engagement with the challenges of our times is a welcome break from the tone of information-free decision making, bombast and unreflective action so characteristic of the Bush years.
To be sure, Reagan uttered those words well into his second term, so the comparison at this point is not entirely fair. The Cold War era also presented simpler lines of right and wrong than we tend to see today. A president's capacity to control a message in today's media environment is also much, much harder than was true even as recently as 10 years ago.
Nonetheless, if Obama is to succeed over the next two difficult years, I doubt that it will be enough for him to be a good professor. He will have to regain the capacity he exemplified so well during the campaign as the great beacon of the hope and change we've been waiting for.
I cannot forecast when Obama's "Berlin Wall moment" will come. Maybe it will be over tax breaks for the rich or curbing the deficit. Maybe it will involve a real priority in education reform or alternative-energy policy. In whatever domain it comes, I suspect that the moment will be defined by less attention to David Axelrod and more focus on a clear return to the community-organizer roots and sensibility that served Obama so well during the campaign.
It is time for professor Obama to step out from behind the lectern, put down the chalk, and reclaim the voice and posture of moral change that brought him to office. As should be clear by now, rekindling hope in America does not come from managerial grit or professorial knowledge. It is something inspired and moved to action when leaders stand up for their big ideas, for the values we hold dear, and take the risks that speak to the courage of their convictions.
Lawrence Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and a frequent contributor to The Root.