As the great philosopher Linus once wisely noted: "There's no heavier burden than a great potential." Or, as a corollary, perhaps the even heavier burden of others’ great expectations.
Recently, I was listening to a sports commentary on soccer in America, and the commentator was discussing David Beckham, the world renowned footballer (soccer player) who in 2007 joined the U.S. Major League Soccer team, Los Angeles Galaxy, after a brilliant career in Europe. He came to the M.L.S. with expectations so high that no mere mortal could come close to meeting them. And, then, of course, fans, like little children who don’t get the Christmas present they wanted, become disappointed and critical, even dismissive, when their expectations were not met.
Which brings me to Barack Obama. Has anyone ever come to the national public spotlight with such ridiculously high expectations that no mere mortal could meet? Let’s do a recap;
He came to the office with a 72 percent approval rating. He was going to unite the country and lead us to greatness. There would no longer be the Red States and the Blue States, he told us, but the United States of America. With degrees from Columbia and Harvard, and as former President of the Harvard Law Review and professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago, he was probably the smartest man ever to occupy the presidency, proclaimed presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Not only that, but he had a first-class mind and a first-class temperament, a rare balance that was hard to recall any previous President possessing, many claimed. He had written a critically-acclaimed memoir and a blueprint for what he intended to accomplish in Washington. After less than a year in office, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was right out of Central Casting.
All this in the face of the worst recession since the Great Depression, a jobless rate in the double digits and getting worse by the month, the banking and automobile industries in free fall, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a political opposition pledged to thwart his every legislative proposal to right the situation.
Yet, despite these obstacles, the President has made remarkable progress. On the domestic front:
• He was able to achieve health care reform, a goal that eluded Presidents of both parties going all the way back to President Theodore Roosevelt.
• He pursued the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), initiated by the Bush Administration, which kept the banking industry from failing and plunging us into another Great Depression.
• He was able to push through a stimulus bill that most agree kept the recession from turning into a full-blown depression and the unemployment rate from rising to as high as 15 percent or higher.
• His bailout of the automobile industry kept that industry from going under, saving even more jobs.
• He has proposed a jobs bill that most economists agree would help create jobs, but the Republican-led House refuses to pass it.
• He has proposed the continuance of the tax cut for the middle class and higher taxes for the rich that most economists agree would help boost the economy, but the GOP controlled House has passed a separate bill loaded with extraneous measures and has stripped out any reference to increased taxes for the wealthiest of Americans.
• The economy is now growing, albeit slowly, and the jobless rate is now below 9 percent.
In foreign affairs:
• He convinced Hillary Clinton to become Secretary of State and she has done an outstanding job in helping to improve U.S. relations overseas.
• He is winding down the costly wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan and has handled the flash points in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya with remarkable dexterity.
• He has forged a strong relationship with foreign leaders, including Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan to keep up the pressure on Iran and act as a stabilizing influence throughout the entire Middle East.
• And he has eliminated Osama bin Laden, an objective that eluded the Bush Administration for eight years.
By any fair standard of measurement, the President has done well considering the enormity of the fiscal and political challenges, and yet his approval rating is down in the low 40’s. Part of the reason is that his administration has done a frightfully poor job of touting its successes and challenging the lies and distortions being peddled by his opponents. As a former Government communications practitioner, I can’t believe how amateurish this effort has been. It wouldn’t pass Communications 101.
Still, if logic held sway in politics, as we know it doesn’t, Obama would be a shoo-in for reelection, especially considering the vulnerabilities of the current GOP presidential hopefuls. But, politics are more tribal than rational, and the outcome of an election is often decided by voters’ anger and resentment rather than a dispassionate assessment of an incumbent’s record of achievement.
As a result, the greatest hurdle for Barack Obama on the road to re-election may be the unrealistic public expectations he failed to meet.
Gerald E. Lavey