Sunday, January 25, 2009

Greater Expectations

[This is a sort-of follow up to a piece I wrote last April called Great Expectations. I started it right after the inauguration but then got distracted by important stuff like Skynyrd pianists and the Super Bowl. I think it's still relevant, though not as relevant as it might have been Inauguration Week. ]

When Barack Obama took the oath of office he did so with the highest incoming approval ratings of any President, at 72%. In a distant second place, at 58%, was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

This is a remarkable thing. Eisenhower possessed, to put it mildly, a stronger resume. He had, you know, led the armies that defeated the greatest evil in the history of mankind (that's a defensible statement, ain't it?). Obama's greatest accomplishment, on the other hand, was the winning of a U.S. Presidential election. Which can't be that hard; after all, George W. Bush did it twice.

The psychology behind this is fascinating but not the subject of this post. I'm more interested in what he does with it. After all, the confidence the American people have placed in President Obama is both a blessing and a curse.

It's a blessing because it gives him enormous political capital, and plenty of room to make mistakes.

The media are so enthralled with him, he could personally chop the fingers off a suspected Al Qaeda operative in the Oval Office on live television, and the New York Times would merely express "slight misgivings". Hollywood is so star-struck he could direct a remake of Howard the Duck with Paris Hilton and Jean Claude Van Damme and he'd be applauded for his artistic integrity. Europe is so smitten he could - hmmm, what would be a terrible thing to a European? Europe is so smitten he could threaten to protect them from Russia with American missiles and they'd actually thank him for it.

But it's not just Hollywood, the media, and Europe. Those high approval ratings show that so much of the country is looking to President Obama to be our next Lincoln, our next FDR. The halo that would have been over Obama's head in normal circumstances has been amplified by the economic collapse. Americans believe we are in one of the great crises in our history and need a Great Man to see us through.

But these expectations are also a curse. As I wrote back in the earlier Great Expectations piece, supporters of Hillary Clinton and John McCain had fairly reasonable expectations for their candidates. But supporters of Barack Obama have wildly unreasonable expectations for their President.

I won't go into all the major problems we're all hoping he can solve - we've been down that road a lot. I'm just very interested to see how he uses these expectations as a political tool to accomplish his goals, while simultaneously trying to avoid the pitfalls of adulation.

It's my read on Obama that he is far more practical and pragmatic than his most idealistic followers. And it's also my read that a lot of Americans are going to cut him a lot of slack.

Policy issues aside, it'll be fascinating to watch him manage these expectations.

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