Ten and a half years ago, at the Democratic convention in Boston, Barack Hussein Obama was introduced to America as a youthful, magnetic man who had burst suddenly and somewhat mysteriously onto the scene. This characterization—superficially appealing yet weightless, more symbolic than substantive—followed him throughout his presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton cast him as an inspirational speechmaker like Martin Luther King Jr., as opposed to a viable contender for president, and John McCain’s campaign scathingly labeled him a “celebrity,” attractive but vacuous.
The lived reality of Obama’s presidency has unfolded as almost the precise opposite of this trope. He has amassed a record of policy accomplishment far deeper than even many of his supporters give him credit for. He has also survived a dismal, and frequently terrifying, 72 months when at every moment, to go by the day-to-day media, a crisis has threatened to rock his presidency to its core. The episodes have been all-consuming: the BP oil spill, swine flu, the Christmas underwear bomber, the IRS scandal, the healthcare.org launch, the border crisis, Benghazi. Depending on how you count, upwards of 19 events have been described as “Obama’s Katrina.”
Obama’s response to these crises—or, you could say, his method of leadership—has been surprisingly consistent. He has a legendarily, almost fanatically placid temperament. He has now spent eight years, counting from the start of his first presidential campaign, keeping his head while others were losing theirs, and avoiding rhetorical overreach at the risk of underreach. A few months ago, the crisis was the Ebola outbreak, and Obama faced a familiar criticism: He had botched the putatively crucial “performative” aspects of his job. “Six years in,” BusinessWeek reported, “it’s clear that Obama’s presidency is largely about adhering to intellectual rigor—regardless of the public’s emotional needs.”
Economists and political scientists will appreciate the scale of Obama’s successes over the long run, as many of them do already. But historians are storytellers, and the moody presentism that has rendered Obama an enigmatic failure will not automatically give way to quantifiable assessment. The president’s most irrational trait may be his inordinate faith in the power of reason itself.