He’s older. He’s grayer. The jaunty optimism about changing the world has given way to the sober reality of stubbornly high unemployment and economic anxiety. In his own words, President Barack Obama has “some dents and dings in the fender.”
Yet beneath those external differences, the question persists: How has Obama changed as a leader in the four years since he first accepted his party’s nomination for president as a young man with little executive experience and little history in Washington. Has he learned on the job? Has he been guided by core principles come what may, or has he changed to adapt to what’s become a vastly different political landscape? The answers could determine how successful he’d be in a second term.
In his first two years, Obama stayed the course and pushed an agenda through a friendly Democratic Congress to stimulate the economy, regulate Wall Street and overhaul health care. Yet he’s maintained much of that course even as the country balked at his health care law, as voters threw his party out of power in the House of Representatives, and as his agenda has stalled ever since.
“On the one hand, he’s got a legacy,” said George Edwards, a scholar of the presidency at Texas A&M University, pointing to sweeping financial regulations and health care legislation sought by Democrats for decades. But Obama also displayed what Edwards called a “misunderstanding of leadership,” which put too much emphasis on his own powers of persuasion and led Obama to “overreach” on health care.
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“As a result, he lost the ability to govern because he lost Congress and he’s not likely to get Congress back. Ever,” Edwards said.
To Obama and his inner circle, his steadiness is a critical virtue.
In his 2006 memoir, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama wrote that he was not “somebody who gets real worked up about things.” His preference for “no drama” became an article of faith within his campaign – and at his White House.
He remains “the most steady, unflappable member of the entire team,” in the words of former White House aide Bill Burton.
“The traits that made him a good candidate, make him a good president,” said Burton, who left the White House in 2011 and is a senior strategist with a pro-Obama “super” PAC, Priorities USA Action. “He keeps the team steady and level headed.”
When Obama’s push for an overhaul of the nation’s health care appeared stalled in 2010, Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff, suggested the fight was costing too much and urged Obama to settle for less. “I told him many times (about) the political cost of doing this and, thank God for the rest of the country, he didn’t listen to me,” Emanuel said after the Supreme Court upheld the law in June. “That’s what political leadership is about,” added Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago.
But where his advisers see consistency, others see inflexibility that in the face of rigid Republican opposition has hampered Obama’s efforts to pass more spending to stimulate the economy and create jobs.
William Galston, a top adviser in the Clinton White House and a current scholar at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, said he believes Obama has learned much in office about how Washington works – but that he’s made few accommodations.
“He came to Washington with a pretty deep-seated belief in his personal power to bring people together, and I think he’s learned the hard way that the gap between red America and blue America was wider and deeper than he imagined, and the force of personality wouldn’t be enough to close the gap,” Galston said.
Bill Clinton, who ran as a centrist but governed as a progressive, had a similar awakening after Democrats suffered a massive defeat in the 1994 midterm election. He pivoted to the center after the shellacking and was able to hammer out legislative compromises on sweeping welfare reform and a balanced budget with a hostile Congress.
Though his Democrats suffered a similar setback in the 2010 election, which saw the rise of the tea party and Republicans even more opposed to the president’s policies, Obama’s style and reliance on a tight circle of advisers has changed little.
“I think he understands some of what he didn’t get right, particularly in the first two years, but I don’t think he’s done a lot to change in light of that new understanding,” Galston said.
Across history, presidents of both parties have shifted course to reflect a changing political landscape: Avowed tax foe Ronald Reagan agreed to several tax increases after his initial tax cuts sent the federal budget deficit soaring. Franklin Roosevelt took office promising to balance the federal budget but sought increased government spending as a way to boost employment, arguing that balancing the budget with so many out of work “would have been a crime against the American people.”
Obama is not immune: In December 2010, he sought to reach a deal with Republicans, angering his Democratic base by agreeing to extend the expiring Bush-era tax breaks for all income levels, even after opposing them for the richest. He’s claimed the same ground this time around, vowing not to sign legislation that extends tax cuts to the wealthiest.
Pragmatism has its risks: George H.W. Bush broke a campaign pledge not to raise taxes. It helped curb deficits but hurt him with his conservative base and contributed to his loss of the presidency. George W. Bush didn’t change course on tax cuts or the war in Iraq, though tax cuts led to greater deficits and debt and the war wounded his presidency and his party.
Obama supporters contend that Congress is more partisan and polarized than it was even a decade ago, making it even more of a challenge to reach any kind of consensus. Tea party Republicans, they note, are nearly as willing to defy their own congressional leaders as they are to oppose Obama.
Though he served in the Senate, Obama had little history with most members of Congress when he got elected. He had been in the Senate only four years – and half of that time was spent on the presidential campaign trail. Though he’s held the occasional picnic at the White House, he’s not one for schmoozing and building relationships with members of Congress, electing instead to use House Republicans in particular as a foil on the campaign trail.
With abysmal popularity ratings, Congress is a tempting target, but good government advocates question whether the approach is an effective governing strategy.
“Even people who are almost entirely uncritical of the president will say that congressional relations turned out unexpectedly to be a weak point in his presidency,” Galston said.
Asked to grade President Obama on working with Republicans, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, the most moderate Republican in the Senate, told ABC News in March that it would be “close to failing on that point.” Snowe, who had announced her plans to leave the Senate in part out of frustration over congressional gridlock, said she hadn’t had a face-to-face meeting with Obama in nearly two years.
Obama’s top political adviser, David Axelrod, argues that Obama has discovered his own way to advance his agenda: For months, he’s elected to take his case directly to the public, traveling to swing states and urging crowds at campaign-style events to call, email, fax or tweet their members of Congress.
“He’s learned that in this political environment, the way to move things through an entirely implacable Congress is to engage the American people in that discussion,” said Axelrod, who maintains that Republican lawmakers wouldn’t have agreed to extend the payroll tax last winter if Obama hadn’t traveled to swing states and made his case.
“If you confine the discussion to the inner sanctums of Washington, the result is much less likely to be positive,” Axelrod said.
He says Obama’s consistency has been critical as he’s made tough calls – including doubling the number of troops in Afghanistan – a decision that at the time was deeply unpopular with many Democratic supporters who wanted a drawdown.
“Whether the day is going well or going badly, he’s focused,” Axelrod said. “Given the times we’ve gone through, two wars and a once-in-a-century economic and financial crisis, that quality of solidity and unflappability is incredibly important.”