Monday, January 21, 2013

0 President Obama's first four years have been defined by a less-than-fruitful struggle for the unity he aspired to as a candidate and by bold, risky decisions

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When President Obama looks up from his paperwork on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, he can see two bronze heads staring back at him. One is the perennial inspiration for Presidents in hard times: Abraham Lincoln, looking downcast. The other, sitting under a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, is Martin Luther King Jr., with his chin tilted up. On a bookshelf nearby, next to a portrait of Lincoln, sits a copy of the program for the 1963 March on Washington.

President Obama’s second inaugural comes a half-century after that march, when King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to declare that, five score years after the slaves were freed, the nation had not fulfilled its promise of freedom. “We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote,” King said, “and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”

At that time it was impossible to imagine a black President of the United States, just as it was impossible to imagine a national holiday celebrating King’s birthday. But the nation’s first black President owes his second inauguration, on the weekend of King’s birthday celebration, to several unthinkable factors.

Few of the political insiders watching Obama’s inauguration thought it was possible for a President to get reelected with such high unemployment. Few thought he could bounce back from the shellacking of the 2010 midterms. Few in his own party thought he had the political skill to achieve much beyond his own first election. Even fewer of his conservative critics thought he could turn out his voters a second time.

As it happened, the Obama base — especially African-Americans — believed they had everything to vote for, whether they lived in battleground states or no-contests like New York. Among the voters who lined up for hours to vote in November, there was a sense of living history that has enveloped Obama from the beginning.


President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walk in the Inaugural Parade on Jan. 20, 2009, in Washington.

They say that history is written by the victors, and Obama has not been shy about writing his own sweeping story. Nor have his fans been reluctant to project history onto him. But the second inaugural of the nation’s first black President is also time for a halftime analysis that places this moment and this man into a context that is bigger than polls and pundits. To do that, there are worse places to start than the Oval Office.

Presidents find it hard to avoid history. They measure themselves against their predecessors and icons, just as their critics do. They seek lessons and insights into the lonely decisions and duties of the leader of the free world. For President George W. Bush, it was Winston Churchill and Abe Lincoln. For President Obama, it is King and Lincoln who frame his presidential hopes as he contemplates his second term and the legacy beyond. They speak to his carefully crafted image as a President: both his record in his difficult first term, and his dreams for his second term.

Lincoln was an obvious model for Obama, even as a state senator toiling away in the obscurity of the Illinois statehouse. As he began to plan seriously for a presidential campaign in late 2006, his advisers drew comparisons with that other lanky Springfield lawyer, claiming that a lack of national experience was no hindrance to winning the White House. On his presidential announcement in Springfield on a frigid February morning in 2007, Obama borrowed liberally from Lincoln’s example.

But the Lincoln comparisons were always a stretch. Even as the President and his staff approach their second inaugural speech, they know there is little in Lincoln’s record that provides a model for them. Obama likes to style himself as a writer, like Lincoln. He wants to be a leader who can unite a divided nation; a moderate with a vision of moral and social justice. But the nation’s divisions and challenges — as big as they are today — are hard to compare to the ones facing Lincoln. When Lincoln promised to bind up the nation’s wounds “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” he was not talking about a rhetorical battle with the Tea Party.


Crowds gather outside the White House to celebrate after President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Insiders say the president was remarkably calm ahead of the raid to capture the Al Qaeda leader.

PEACE AND WAR

King is a different case. At times, his leadership has weighed heavily on President Obama, who idealized his civil rights struggle. It was partly King’s example that led the young Obama to enter politics at the street level, as a community organizer in Chicago, two decades after King’s death. In his very first stump speech, he would end a tale about campaigning in a formerly segregated Illinois town with a quote made famous by King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That quote is now woven into the rug of the Oval Office itself.

For much of his presidential campaign in 2008, Obama often returned to the themes of King. He talked about the fierce urgency of now, and laid a wreath at the King memorial in Atlanta. He delivered his acceptance speech in 2008 on the 45th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and choked up as he practiced his speech in his hotel room. “You know what? I’ve got to stop,” he told his speechwriters, as he walked around the suite. “This is kind of a big deal.”

But for all Obama’s aspirations and echoes, King also represents a principled example he has so far failed to live up to. Not even a year into the presidency, Obama followed in King’s footsteps by winning a singular honor that even his most loyal aides first thought to be some kind of joke: the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama recognized at the time that the prize was a statement of intent and hope, and he knows — at the start of his second term — that he still needs to earn it.

The way Obama answered the Nobel challenge is a useful guide to what he has done in his first term and what he intends to do in his second. His acceptance speech remains the most carefully crafted of his presidency — and the most overlooked, not least because it was delivered overseas.

Obama was barely a month into an intensive review of his strategy in the Afghan war, and he was about to deploy tens of thousands of additional troops to escalate the conflict there. He had increased the use of drone strikes in Pakistan, and was still commander-in-chief of another combat force, in Iraq. None of this placed him in the best position to receive a peace prize.

Working through the night, on successive nights, Obama drafted a speech around the concept of the “just war”: a compromise between pacifism and warmongering, between the hopes of a candidate and the reality of a President. “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there’s nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naïve, in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King,” he told the Nobel audience.

“But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.”

War was necessary because men could be evil; but he, like all leaders, needed to live by international standards of war. Peace would come from what John F. Kennedy called “a gradual evolution in human institutions,” he said. King and Gandhi were a North star, a moral compass, affirming faith in human progress. But there would be no sudden revolution.

“Gradual evolution” is Obama’s working method. At home and abroad, Obama’s presidency has been an uneasy struggle between the high hopes of his campaign rhetoric and the low realities of the political world in Washington.

President Obama is a paradox. He is a big advocate of little changes; a campaign conqueror who lost control of Congress; personally popular with voters but on distant personal terms with lawmakers. Taken overall, his record is a monumental one: two wars, massive stimulus spending and deficits, and huge health care reforms. Yet, at any given moment, his presidency can seem as small as a campaign dispute over a misplaced word.

His critics on the left say he is doing too little and giving away too much; his critics on the right say he is doing too much and giving away too little. The truth is that both sides can reasonably claim to be right.


President Obama arrives with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia (L) and Sasha on election night in Chicago in 2012.

ROLLER COASTER

Obama’s first term can be divided into two phases: before and after the 2010 midterms. At first, the President tried to do big things; partly out of necessity, and partly out of choice. Before his first election in 2008 and well before his first inauguration, the U.S. and global economy collapsed. In his transition office in Chicago, he was faced with the realization that he didn’t have the people, knowledge or resources to deal with the worst recession since the Great Depression.
The result was a mixture of boldness and smallness, of centrism and partisanship, of sophistication and naivete. In short, it was a mixture that would come to characterize President Obama’s first term.

The boldness was the size of the stimulus: at more than $800 billion, the newly elected President was spending as much money in his first substantive legislation as his predecessor had spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

The smallness was that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act spread the cash in splintered ways: about a third was spent on tax cuts and credits, another third on propping up state budgets, and the final third was spent on infrastructure and investment. There would be no Hoover Dam, and there was little public understanding about where the cash went, including on tax cuts. Obama’s aides would later lament how many workers believed their higher paychecks were the result of raises from employers, not lower taxes from Washington.

It was a political calculation that led them to push through such a big stimulus to the economy at a time of dire need. Their calculation was based not just on what the economy required, but on what they believed Congress would approve. The economy was hitting its lowest point, losing 800,000 jobs a month. It was clear that the Congress would not approve anything close to a trillion dollars, but the President and his team were also blindsided by the politics of their opponents. They assumed that some Republicans would rally to the nation’s support; instead they won all of three GOP votes in Congress. Far from uniting red and blue America, Obama’s entire term would be dogged by a determined division along party lines.


President Obama is applauded after signing the Affordable Health Care for America Act during a ceremony with fellow Democrats in the East Room of the White House on March 23, 2010.

THE OBAMACARE BATTLE

At least the stimulus debate was over within the first month of his taking office. What followed was an even more ambitious effort that lasted a year and almost wrecked the Obama presidency. Health care reform was the Democratic dream for the best part of a half-century, and Obama was determined to finish the job in a way that the Clinton White House had failed to do. Besides, he and his wife felt a personal commitment to health care in a way they didn’t feel about climate change — the other big policy priority pushed by his fellow Democrats.

This time, the opposition did not just come from Republicans. Obama faced withering criticism from the left and right, from inside and outside the White House. On the left, liberals felt he had sold out because his approach was to reform the health care system, rather than restructure it with a so-called public option like an expanded Medicare. On the right, the size and cost of the changes — combined with their disciplined opposition to everything Obama-related — left Republicans voting against many of their own health care ideas.

Inside the Oval Office, Obama faced opposition from his own chief of staff, the Clinton-era veteran Rahm Emanuel, and his own political guru, David Axelrod. Both felt that his approach was too big and too costly — at least in terms of the polls — for him to push forward. That was especially true after Republicans won the special Senate election to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts.

To everyone except President Obama, the loss of Kennedy and the loss of his seat were clear signals to back down and move on. Instead, Obama was stubbornly and emotionally driven. Time and again, he was moved by the stories of young mothers suffering from cancer and struggling with health insurance, just like his own mother. After one visit to Wisconsin, Obama returned to the Oval Office to hear Axelrod explain how a new batch of polls showed how much damage he was suffering. “I’m sure you’re right,” Obama said, before telling the story of how he had just met a 35-year-old mother of two who was suffering from breast cancer and going broke.

“She’s terrified that she’s going to die and leave her family bankrupt,” he said. “So you know, this fight is worth it. We have to keep going.”

Driven by the memory of his mother’s final months, as well as the memory of Ted Kennedy, Obama defied his aides and the odds to pass his signature legislation. The Affordable Care Act would continue to unite his opponents through his reelection. Today, three years after Obama signed health care reform into law, public opinion remains confused and divided on the issue.

But with the Supreme Court upholding the law, and the challenge of reelection behind him, Obamacare now enters a new stage. The task of making real its sprawling provisions — from expanding Medicaid to forcing insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions — will be a huge commitment of time and energy in Obama’s second term.


President Obama poses with his medal and diploma during the Nobel Peace prize award ceremony at the City Hall in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2009. The White House was shocked by reports of the honor.

OUT OF IRAQ

Of all the historic measures of Obama’s first term, none were as politically simple as the issue that propelled him to his party’s nomination in the first place: ending the war in Iraq. His early opposition to the war — unlike Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden — proved his bona fides to the left through the long battle of the Democratic primaries in 2007 and 2008.

After seven years of war, the American people had reached the same position as Obama: It was time to end the combat mission in Iraq and, soon after, begin the full withdrawal of U.S. troops. While some hawks argued that withdrawal would imperil Iraq’s security, there were few realistic alternatives in the face of opposition from the Iraqi government itself.

In some ways, the end of the war in Iraq was the easy part; what he said about Afghanistan was far harder for a President who had escalated the number of troops there. “As was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves,” he said. “That’s why we are training Afghan security forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

President Obama announced the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom from the same place President Bush had told the nation of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003: the Resolute desk inside the Oval Office. At the time of the Bush announcement, Obama was just a state senator in Illinois with no serious prospect of becoming commander-in-chief.


Vice President Joe Biden stands behind President Obama as he signs the $787 billion economic stimulus bill at the Museum of Nature and Science in central Denver on Feb. 17, 2009. The President overestimated Republican support for the controversial measure and was disappointed that tax cuts drew little notice.

WINNING AND LOSING

During his first election campaign, President Obama noted what would become the repeated pattern of his political life on the national stage: One moment he was a historic success, the next he was a dismal failure.
There seemed to be no stopping point between the giant swings of the political pendulum. He won big in Iowa and lost big in New Hampshire. He reconciled with Hillary and united his party at his first convention, then watched his party freak out over Sarah Palin. He passed the economic stimulus and almost lost any chance of health care reform.

At the half-way point of his first term — after all the big legislation and the historic challenges of recession and war — the pendulum swung sharply against the new President. Obama met with his senior aides in the Oval Office the morning after the GOP took control of the House with a heavy influx of obstructionist Tea Party favorites. “Obviously this is going to be a rough period for us,” he said. “In the never-ending cycle of idiocy and genius, we’re going to be idiots again.”

What followed in the next two years were some of the lowest and highest points of Obama’s presidency.

Within two months of the Democrats’ resounding defeat in the 2010 midterms, President Obama enjoyed a flurry of big legislation: He extended the Bush tax cuts and unemployment insurance, repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and ratified a new nuclear treaty with Russia. A supposedly defeated President achieved all this in a supposedly lame duck session. His reward: dismay from his own base for extending tax cuts, and little appreciation for ending the much-hated policy on gays in the military. The idiots could be geniuses but they would get little credit for their work.


President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House.

KILLING BIN LADEN

In any normal year, the defining moment of 2011 would have given the President a decisive and lasting lift. For a decade, the combined might of American intelligence and military force had been searching for the nation’s No. 1 enemy. Obama had promised to refocus U.S. efforts to kill Al Qaeda’s leadership and find Osama Bin Laden himself, after the Bush administration had diverted its attention to Iraq. To that end, Obama had adopted and extended many of Bush’s own counterterrorism efforts — against the opposition of liberals — including extensive surveillance and drone attacks.

Now the CIA had located what it believed to be Bin Laden’s secure compound in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.

For a President often compared to Jimmy Carter — at least, by Republicans hoping for a one-term opponent — the decisions surrounding Bin Laden’s compound provided uncomfortable echoes. Obama could safely obliterate the place with huge air strikes. Or he could order a dangerous, special forces operation to be sure of Bin Laden’s identity and minimize civilian casualties.

According to the hand-written note by CIA director Leon Panetta, the President’s instructions were clear about the assault on the compound: “The approval is provided on the risk profile presented to the President,” Panetta wrote. “Any additional risks are to be brought back to the President for his consideration. The direction is to go in and get Bin Laden and if he is not there, to get out.”

Even the aides and friends closest to the President were surprised by Obama’s reaction to the Bin Laden assassination. None of them expected to get briefed on the operation ahead of time, given the highly classified nature of the raid and the risks to operational security. But what astonished them was how Obama betrayed no stress in the days and hours before the raid. They saw no clue that he was risking his presidency and the lives of the special forces involved. “It really wasn’t natural,” said one of his closest friends. “A normal person would have reacted differently.”

Despite the loss of one helicopter, the daring raid accomplished its mission with no loss of American life. Obama coolly tracked the assault from the White House situation room and addressed the nation that evening.

“The death of Bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al Qaeda. Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort,” he warned on television. “There’s no doubt that Al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must — and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.”

Outside the White House that night there were spontaneous celebrations, and Obama’s approval ratings would soon reach their highest mark since his first months in office. That sense of American power and success would not last two months, as the long, hot summer of 2011 began.


President Obama high-fives 8-year-old Hinna Zejah after unveiling a series of gun control proposals at the White House on Wednesday. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School maccacre, Gun control is one of the most pressing issues he faces as he begins a second term.

FRIENDS AND ENEMIES

Obama was lucky as a legislator. In Springfield, he had found some common ground with moderate Republicans on campaign finance and police reforms. His main personal opposition came from other African-American, Chicago Democrats, who found him to be arrogant and dismissive — a feeling that was mutual.

In Washington, in the brief time he was an active senator, Obama found Republican allies on his foreign relations committee: Dick Lugar, the Indiana Republican who was later forced out by Tea Party opposition, and Chuck Hagel, whom Obama later nominated as his defense secretary. His main opposition came from other, older Democrats, who also found him to be arrogant and dismissive.

But as President, the opposition was personal and aggressive. Obama had a galvanizing force on House Republicans, especially the intake of 2010: He wasn’t just disliked, he was a unifier of those against him, even driving moderates to extreme positions.

FINANCIAL FIST FIGHT

No position against Obama was more extreme than the fight over the previously arcane subject of raising the federal debt ceiling. Every President in recent times had raised the debt ceiling: Ronald Reagan raised it 18 times, while George W. Bush raised it seven times. It was often inserted into other legislation because the real debate over spending had already taken place as part of budget negotiations.

Obama and his aides wanted to craft a plan to reduce the long-term federal deficit without hurting the fragile recovery. Republicans believed that nothing hurt the recovery as much as the deficit itself. A year earlier Obama created a presidential commission first suggested by Republicans, who later opposed their own idea. By the time the commission issued its report, the distrust between the White House and congressional Republicans was deep.

When deficit talks collapsed between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, the result was as damaging economically as it was politically. They finally cut a deal to delay talks until the end of the 2012 election, under pain of draconian spending cuts. But the financial markets were not impressed: The U.S. credit rating was cut, and the Dow Jones industrial average lost more than 600 points in one day of trading.

According to those closest to the President, Obama was angrier about the debt ceiling debacle than anything else in his first term. He was determined to strike back hard. The debt disaster killed off the notion that he could ever campaign again — never mind govern — as someone who could unite red and blue America.


President Obama arrives with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia (L) and Sasha on election night in Chicago in 2012.

THE RACE FOR 2012

The 2012 election cycle was already extreme in policy and negative in tone. The Republican primary campaign was well underway, and the contenders were fringe candidates like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. Mitt Romney would only emerge as the nominee after his own PAC dumped large amounts of cash into negative ads to tear down successive rivals.

The stage was set for an Obama campaign far removed from the themes of hope and change that dominated the 2008 cycle. The President and his aides had long admired the Bush campaign in 2004, despite their obvious and sharp political differences. Many of them had worked for the John Kerry campaign and been at the receiving end of the Bush efforts to tear down the Democratic nominee and drive up voter turnout. Now it was their turn to strike back.

There were uncanny parallels between Bush and Obama’s reelection. Both Presidents suffered middling approval numbers in the face of exceptionally difficult circumstances. In Bush’s case, the war in Iraq was spiraling rapidly into a brutal civil war; in Obama’s case, unemployment remained stubbornly high. Both struggled to make the case that they needed more time to finish the job.

Their saving grace was that they both faced weak opponents with undisciplined campaigns that struggled to redefine their candidates on a national stage. In John Kerry and Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts models of Democratic and Republican politics were ill-suited to the stress test of a presidential election.

Both Presidents set out to define their opponents before they could recover from the primaries. Kerry was portrayed as weak on defense and an out-of-touch liberal; Romney was portrayed as weak on jobs and an out-of-touch millionaire. Kerry confirmed his caricature by trying to explain his vote on funding for the Iraq war; Romney confirmed his caricature by trying to explain why 47% of voters didn’t support him.

And both Presidents supposedly blew their own reelections with surprisingly weak debate performances.

The final result was a surprise not just to the losing party. Both Bush and Obama built their victory on huge turnout efforts, centered on voter-to-voter contact. Bush won reelection by 2.4 percentage points; Obama by 2.8.


President Obama is sworn in as Michelle holds up the same Bible used by former President Abraham Lincoln during Obama's inauguration ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2009.

THE NEXT FOUR YEARS

Obama told his aides that the 2012 victory meant more to him than his 2008 landslide. That may have been true for his legacy and the legislative accomplishments that would now endure. But he told his aides he felt the same about the passage of health care reform. In truth, each major achievement was as unlikely as the last.

Reelected Presidents rarely fare well. President Bill Clinton’s second term was mired in impeachment; President Bush’s was mired in Iraq and economic collapse. Second-term Presidents like to think they have earned political capital, as Bush declared. But in Bush’s case, that capital meant little to his own party, and his major efforts — particularly his attempt to restructure Social Security — failed.

That recent history is not tempering Obama’s hopes for the brief honeymoon he can expect, now that his approval ratings have returned to the levels of his first few months in office. Two issues have forced their way to the top of his agenda: the continuing fight over deficits and debt ceiling, and the pressing need to respond to the tragedy of Sandy Hook with gun safety legislation.

A third issue remains his biggest hope to join King as a civil rights leader: immigration reform. Latinos were critical to his reelection and remain pivotal to Democratic efforts to shift the political landscape and build a lasting majority, especially in the southern border states. It remains unclear whether enough Republicans, who recognize their own need to close the gap with Latino voters, will compromise on major legislation — especially after dealing with taxes, spending and the debt ceiling once again.

Obama is likely to turn to foreign affairs as quickly as his predecessors. He will wind down the war in Afghanistan, and continue to try to manage the fallout from the Arab Spring revolutions. The two countries where he had most impact in toppling dictators — Egypt and Libya — need support and guidance to continue on anything like a democratic track. Syria has yet to reach its end point, and its fate will be complicated by Obama’s decision on whether to take military action against Iran’s nuclear program. Like his predecessors, Obama will surely be tempted to try to broker a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When contemplating his legacy from the White House, Clinton famously lamented that fate had not handed him the kind of crises — economic or military — that traditionally provided the backdrop for a claim to greatness. Bush had both, but historians — and his own party — have rated him poorly on the scale of greatness.


People fill the West Front of the Capitol ahead of the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America on the West Front of the Capitol Jan. 20, 2009, in Washington.

BIG RISKS

At the half-way point, it is too early to say how Obama will compare to other Presidents.

But some factors in his legacy seem clear already. Obama was always going to make history, once he was elected as the nation's first African-American President. What he chose to do with that presidency, however, was his own decision. And his defining decisions have been inherently risky.

From the size of the stimulus, to the scope of health care reform; from doubling the troops in Afghanistan, to the raid on Bin Laden’s compound; from expanding the deficit, to campaigning on tax hikes; from pushing Hosni Mubarak out of power in Egypt, to supporting the rebels in Libya; Obama has often made some strategically big bets.

After the turmoil of the Bush years, it would have been politically easier to make some smaller bets. But the United States is a country in transition, and Obama reflects that shift in politics, in the global economy, and in its demographics.

Above all, historians may look back and find that a man with the exotic name of Barack Hussein Obama was elected at a time when the country was becoming more international in its outlook, and less monolithic in its culture. The Obama coalition of young Americans, minorities and women represents the growing center of American politics.

During the 2008 campaign, there was one President Obama liked to acknowledge as a role model, even as he disagreed vehemently with his policies. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not. And in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it,” he told one Nevada newspaper.

It wasn’t the first time he had thought about Reagan. More than a year earlier, as he wrestled with the most momentous decision of his life, Obama was contemplating the career of the man whose ideas he opposed so deeply as a community organizer in Chicago.


President Obama uses his blackberry at the White House after the Inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.

GREATNESS

Obama was deciding whether to run for President, as he took his annual winter vacation in Hawaii, in late 2006. Talking to his friend Marty Nesbitt on the beach, he began to think about not just the presidency, but about greatness. Nesbitt asked him, what made a great President?

“Well, I think that probably everybody who has been elected President was a great person in some aspect or another,” Obama began. “But what makes a great President, as opposed to a great person, is the juxtaposition of that President’s personal characteristics and strengths, with the needs of the American people and the country. And when you are a President who happens to come into office at that juxtaposition, there’s an environment for you to be a great President.”

Some Presidents were great individuals with extraordinary talents, but their timing was wrong. The great ones were needed by their nation at that point in history. “Reagan would probably go down as a great President,” he said. “It was just his time.”

Whether this is Obama’s time is hard to know at the four-year mark. The American people needed Lincoln and King, for sure. Their personal strengths met the needs of the nation. Only the next four years will tell us whether the personal strengths of Obama will meet the great needs of this country — struggling to emerge from deep recession and long wars — at this point in its history.

Richard Wolffe, the executive editor of MSNBC.com, is the author of two books about Barack Obama — “Renegade: The Making of a President” and “Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House.”

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