Why President Obama Isn’t About to Snap Into Action 

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 21 2014 7:14 PM

Inaction Hero

For all the talk of getting things done, President Obama seems worn out.

U.S. President Barack Obama
President Obama waves from Air Force One before departing Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 16, 2012.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

It seems that every State of the Union address must now come with a slogan. In 2011, it was “Win the Future.” In 2012, the slogan was “Built to Last.” For 2013, it was “Let’s Get It Done,” and this year the president will treat us to a “Year of Action.” He and his staff have been test-driving the phrase for months. The president used it again in his Saturday radio address. Though Congress may block him, the president says he’s determined to use every tool at his disposal to get something done. “Where Congress isn’t acting, I’ll act on my own to put opportunity within reach for anyone who’s willing to work for it,” the president said on Saturday.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Sounds exciting, plus the slogan “A Year of Grinding Torpor” or “More of the Same” don't really fit the spirit of the enterprise. But on the eve of the annual speech, a New Yorker profile of the president doesn’t paint the picture of a man of action—at least not the way that word is being used in the White House’s slogan. Instead of coming across as a man engaging his considerable faculties in an energetic effort to overcome the limits of his office, the president seems content with tending the store, confident that the verdict of history will smile on him. He’s not worried about being measured against the vestiges of an old notion of the presidency. This may be a realistic view of things, but it doesn’t really match the call for action. 

The president gave New Yorker editor and Obama biographer David Remnick special access over several days late last year to talk about his administration and his plans for the future. It was similar to the wide-ranging set of interviews the president gave Michael Lewis a year ago for a Vanity Fair profile. In the Lewis interview, the president was buoyant, game for Lewis’ conceit to train a person for the presidency in 30 minutes. He invited the writer to play basketball with him and needled him for his sloppy defense. Remnick’s piece starts out with the president nursing a fat lip from a recent game. In the Lewis piece, Obama talked about the limitations of his office but also talked about its potential, as if he was still sifting through the tool chest for some Allen wrench that might yield a fresh result. 

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The Obama of the New Yorker profile wears the limitations of his office like a shawl. “At the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story,” the president says. “We just try to get our paragraph right.” At another time he describes himself as “a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history.” To the crowd at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser that applauds a heckler’s insistence he use more executive orders, Remnick reports him responding: “Before everybody starts clapping, that’s not how it works. We’ve got this Constitution, we’ve got this whole thing about separation of powers. So there is no shortcut to politics, and there’s no shortcut to democracy.” His parting words to Remnick are about limits. “The President of the United States cannot remake our society, and that’s probably a good thingNot ‘probably.’ It’s definitely a good thing.

The president talks about income inequality and fighting for the middle class as the driving motives for his presidency’s final years, but there’s a lack of ardor. It’s the difference between reading a story about someone saying they’re going to run a marathon and reading one where they are running hills each morning at 5 a.m. In this narrative, the president is mostly described working his will on high-dollar Democratic donors whose money he’ll need for the bruising midterm elections—which will add another set of constraints to action. 

The president’s comments reflect the triumph of experience over hope. He long ago tempered his claims about transforming partisan politics—he now seems a little embarrassed about the whole thing. But the tone of the piece also shows how realistic he has become about harnessing the power of his electoral success and the national mood he claimed it represented. That was a promise of the Obama presidency that didn’t rely on a willing Congress. He had a special relationship with voters and he was going to turn it into a force. He called on that bond in his second inaugural address: “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time—not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

But when he talks about tackling income inequality he no longer speaks of national movements. It’s not because the public isn’t ready to be led. The country is still looking for a political champion to rally them, but unlike a previous version of Obama who would have promised that he could channel the passion outside Washington to change Washington, his aspirations are more modest now. He hopes to give “voice to an impression, I think a lot of Americans have, which is it’s harder to make it now if you are just the average citizen who’s willing to work hard and has good values, and wasn’t born with huge advantages or having enjoyed extraordinary luck—that the ground is less secure under your feet.” After six years the president recognizes that people are looking for “other flavors ... somebody else out there who can give me that spark of inspiration or excitement.”

If this more realistic posture seems at odds with the call to a “Year of Action,” that may be only because we are misinterpreting what President Obama means by action. He’s not talking about showy gestures, but actions that unfold over a much longer timeline. In the realistic assessment of his office, the president offers a theory about presidential progress. “Sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant. I suspect that Ronald Reagan, if you’d asked him, would not have considered the earned-income-tax-credit provision in tax reform to be at the top of his list of accomplishments. On the other hand, what the E.I.T.C. has done, starting with him, being added to by Clinton, being used by me during the Recovery Act, has probably kept more people out of poverty than a whole lot of other government programs that are currently in place.

This is the Johnny Appleseed version of the presidency in which important programs ignored by the daily press make a huge impact in people’s lives in the future. That is the essential argument of Michael Grunwald’s book The New New Deal on the $800 billion Obama stimulus package passed early in his tenure. Judged at the time based on whether it would halt the economic slowdown, its lasting impact may well be in the programs it launched—everything from Race to the Top to improve education, to ideas promoting electronic medical records to transportation innovations, to support for clean energy. 

Remnick treats this evolution of Obama’s vision as a laudable outgrowth of his special temperament. The president takes the “long view,” a sensible antidote to the conventional wisdom that a president must achieve success on big things quickly and almost despite the obstacles. This is right, but it is not Obama’s insight alone. This view about history’s verdict provided solace to George W. Bush as well. Bush also said he was never worried about the day-to-day evaluations of his presidency because history’s verdict was all that mattered. “You can’t possibly figure out the history of the Bush presidency—until I’m dead,” he told Robert Draper in a typical remark. According to Peter Baker’s book Days of Fire, Bush and Obama also shared another realization. In the New Yorker interview, Obama seems to be embracing a view of the presidency’s limitations that Bush offered in the response to an aide who asked him what surprised him the most about his presidency.  “How little authority I have,” said Bush.

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