He is hardly in the straits of Jimmy Carter circa 1980. No foreign crisis eats away at him–although Afghanistan and Iran could still go badly wrong–and his highest-profile gamble overseas, the Osama bin Laden raid, succeeded brilliantly. There’s no denying his political skills. A fluid speaker with an easy command of details, he is a vivid, appealing campaigner. It’s a mistake, though, to consider his talent through the gauzy prism of 2008 rather than the pedestrian experience of the past 3 years.
Obama has proved a better talker than a persuader. He never moved the needle of public opinion on his health care bill, despite repeated rhetorical exertions. The law passed on sheer partisan muscle. In the high-stakes debt-limit debate, he came up with a shrewd mantra (“a balanced approach”) but still left the confrontation as bruised as the congressional Republicans who lacked his megaphone and were deeply divided.
His words have never mattered less. He traveled the country on a multicity gas-prices-aren’t-my-fault tour, lighting up crowds with his mockery of Republican devotion to fossil fuels. To no avail. So long as every visit to the pump is a cause for agita, he can give graduate-level tutorials on petrochemistry and it won’t matter. His fate is tied to irreducible economic realities.