(CCU Faculty) In 2008, Barack Obama presented American voters with a candidacy expressing “righteous indignation” and the appearance of a leader ready to take the helm in a time of great national economic difficulty. The anger he expressed, alleging numerous failings of the Bush administration – failure at war, failure at appealing to the international community, expansion of government programs and government debt, failure to respond to the economic crisis, etc. – found a receptive audience with a frustrated citizenry. His anger was tempered with his seeming readiness to tackle this laundry list of problems.
Rallying an angry electorate with a promise of “change” proved easy for Obama. Frustration is easy to harness when people fear declining economic opportunity while unemployment is rising and financial institutions are collapsing. The incumbent and his party are easy prey. Obama was able to present a calm demeanor suggesting a readiness to take charge. Here he was in contrast to the candidacy of Senator McCain. When the economic crisis reached a nadir in September 2008 and the government was forced to step in to prop up large investment firms, McCain called for a suspension of campaigns, a summit in Washington, and several inconsistent proposals. While McCain appeared to be flailing, Obama stayed on message and exhibited a calm detachment which gave the appearance of competence to a willing audience.
Flash forward 24 months from the calm and controlled candidate Obama of September 2008. The criticism of President Obama is not simply coming from the right. The anger expressed by conservatives and the Tea Party movement are well documented. Increasingly, frustration is being expressed from the left, from the hard-core supporters of just two years ago. This past week, Obama spoke before an audience at a CNBC sponsored Town Hall event. Velma Hart, a supporter of Obama in 08 said the following:
“I'm a mother. I'm a wife. I'm an American veteran, and I'm one of your middle-class Americans. And, quite frankly, I'm exhausted; I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now.”
Liberal columnist Eleanor Clift wrote the following: “President Obama’s supporters are angry at a White House they think has grown insular, and at a president who’s lost his touch.”
The problem facing President Obama stems from the message of his campaign in 2008: righteous indignation paired with the appearance of calming competence. Unfortunately for him: this formula works well when challenging and not so well when governing. The righteous indignation has turned against him and the appearance of competence is increasingly proving to have been false. While he might wish to express indignation at our nation’s current state of affairs, this doesn’t work so well when you are the leader of that nation.
Obama has had 20 months to right the ship, the entire time with large majorities in both the House and Senate. The state of the union can no longer be placed at the feet of George Bush. Expressing indignation works when you are on the outside looking in. Indignation doesn’t work when you are on the inside looking out.
Anger at the establishment is a great way to rally a political movement. When you become the establishment, it is time to lead.
Eleanor Clift continues: “It’s mind-boggling how poorly the White House has related to its friends, putting up a wall of cool and refusing to hit the panic button even as the Democrats’ congressional majorities slip away.” The calm demeanor found so attractive two years ago seems today to be less the sign of a ready leader and more the evidence of someone not ready to take the helm. Ms. Clift concludes that Obama’s management style and demeanor are in need of change. Perhaps she is missing a more likely reality: Obama’s demeanor indicates that he has nothing more to offer?