The Chameleon: Obama is remaking himself in preparation for the election.
Barack Obama was once memorably described by a biographer as a shape-shifter, a political being whose racial background and peripatetic upbringing and education gave him unique skills to inspire and ingratiate himself with a new breed of voters. Three years on, the president is shifting into a different sort of shape, a once giant figure drifting off towards the horizon, off the political map.
In private, Obama likes to joke that August has always been his darkest month. Hillary Clinton’s brief ascendancy in 2007 in the Democratic primaries was followed by the financial crisis the following year and the excruciating town hall meetings lambasting his health care reform in 2009. Last year he was readying for the mother of all election losses to the Tea Party-stirred Republicans in the mid-term polls.
August 2011 marked a new low point in his presidency. After failing to strike a grand bargain over the budget with John Boehner, the Republican house speaker, he was shunted aside when Congress eventually did a deal itself to avoid the US defaulting on its debt. Then, Obama had to bear the ignominy of Standard & Poors downgrading the country’s credit rating on his watch. Soon after came the first of the administration’s insiders-tell-all tales. Confidence Men, by Ron Suskind, portrayed Obama in his first two years in office as a kind of hapless referee, buffeted between string-willed economic advisers, Larry Summers and Peter Orszag.
Obama recast his White House team following the devastating losses last November in the mid-term elections. Summers and Orszag have gone, as has his abrasive chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel. The choice of a new chief of staff, William Daley, a veteran politician from the Chicago political dynasty with extensive commercial experience, symbolised the new path that Obama was setting out on, a systematic shift to the middle ground, to dispense with the charge that he was anti-business.
But the shift to the centre ended with the debacle over the debt ceiling in August. Obama looked the way a president should never look, ineffective and even irrelevant. Obama could point to all sorts of achievements, ranging from health reform to the killing of Osama bin Laden only a few months before. But with the economy still anaemic and unemployment stubbornly stuck above 9 per cent, his successes have mattered little. For too much of the time, the president seemed to be shifting into one shape too many for the electorate, to the point where he either stood for little at all, or for whatever label his opponents were able to pin on him.
James Kloppenberg, a Harvard historian and author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition, says the president is little understood on either side of politics. Kloppenberg depicts Obama as a classic pragmatist in the US tradition, a person who constantly updates and revises his ideas to find his way through an ever-changing world.