Now that Obama has initiated Phase II of his presidency with yet another craven retreat—this time on the Bush tax cuts—perhaps we should take a look at this remarkable aspect of his personality. Normally I am a knee-jerk structuralist, assigning nearly all effectivity to economic, political and social conditions and virtually none to the individual traits of leaders, but in this case I think personality rises in significance. On every issue that has marked Phase I, including health care, stimulus, financial reform and climate change, Obama has given ground without a fight. The issues left off his agenda, such as labor law reform and global public finance (like financial transaction taxes), echo loudly in their silence.
To put it bluntly, Obama may be the most risk-averse president we have had in decades. He is pathologically risk averse. His fear of losing a congressional vote has utterly paralyzed his agenda, just as his fear of being surprised by some detail of an appointee’s background has caused unprecedented delays in staffing his administration. He has kept silent during congressional debates in which vital interests were at stake, for fear of being rebuffed even by a few words in the language of a bill.
Like most Obama-watchers, I was not surprised by his centrist politics; he advertised them honestly during his primary and general election campaigns. What has baffled me, however, is how someone whose political career seemed to be painted in bold, even audacious, strokes could, on reaching his promised land, turn so timid.
Over the next two years there is absolutely no chance that legislation to the left of John Boehner’s right pinkie will get through congress. Unless Obama is willing to fight for a losing cause, he will have no causes at all. What then?