Even liberals admit that Obama is not much at the job of governance. When in Washington, he leaves governance to leaders in Congress, as he did to Reid and Pelosi in the first years of this presidency. Or else he flounders about, shifting from one position to another trying to find something that works, or he morphs into the churlish scorn whose unpleasant side comes out when he doesn't get his way.
On the campaign trail, it is said, another side of the President comes out. This is where he is at his best: affable and relaxed as he delivers a prepared speech to partisan audiences. Escaping the day-to-day conflicts of Washington, he reverts to the charming, hopeful, nonthreatening persona that got him elected.
But looking more closely at this persona, we realize that Obama the campaigner is not a better man after all. If anything, when he is out there belittling his opponents in front of liberal supporters, Obama is even more uncivil than he is in Washington. On the campaign trail, he seems to actually believe he is the transformative figure he claims to be. Escaping the constraints of practical politics, he becomes a truly frightening figure: a self-deluded utopian who seems to think he is Moses, Christ, Gandhi, and JFK combined.
That's what you would expect, isn't it, of a President who confines his appearances to hand-picked audiences like Facebook employees, Al Sharpton's National Action Network, and a company that produces federally subsidized windmills (Gamesa Corporation)? Not a lot of opposition from conservatives there, or at a Chicago event for DNC insiders or at SONY studios in Los Angeles. Those are the kinds of gigs where Obama can sit back and be himself, and, believe me, he does.
At the Studio Museum in Harlem, surrounded by such exemplary public servants as Rep. Charlie Rangel, Obama proclaimed that, while he had already accomplished more than president in history, he still had a great deal to do. More in the way of "equality and justice," for instance. "A more equal place for everybody." More on opening the borders for new immigrants, and granting citizenship to illegals already here. More spending on "high-speed rails" and "solar and wind and geothermal and biofuels." And nothing about less spending. In Chicago, surrounded by Richard Daley, Rahm Emanuel, Lisa Madigan, and other prominent members of the Chicago political mafia, Obama remarked on his "extraordinary" first two and a half years in office. You can hardly accuse this President of false modesty. And, once again, he spoke of big plans for the future: "taking the lead when it comes to climate change," comprehensive immigration reform, and making sure affluent Americans "pay a little bit more in taxes." Chicago and Harlem were not exactly intellectual challenges, but neither was Facebook. Asked whether he would be willing to pay "a bit more" in taxes, Mark Zuckerberg replied, "I'm cool with that." Just to show he was following a "balanced approach," Obama reiterated his opposition to the GOP budget, especially Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to terminate "children with disabilities" and defund "folks who are in nursing homes." That line got big applause from the Facebook crowd. Then there's clean energy -- always a California crowd pleaser. The President noted that the U.S. produced only 2% of global advanced batteries when he took office. He declined to say what that percentage is today, but he insisted that he had "invested" a lot of money on the problem (including "investment" in battery producers that have gone bankrupt).
As for immigration, Obama was even more candid about his intentions than he had been in Harlem. The "DREAM Act" grants citizenship to illegal aliens who serve in the military or complete only two years of higher education -- not exactly a high bar for citizenship. But, Obama insists, it was the parents who came here illegally. "The kids didn't do anything." If these "kids" want to be citizens, "why wouldn't we want to embrace them?" How's that for confronting the issue?
The Obama that one sees on the campaign trail, in other words, is more partisan, more tone-deaf, more simplistic, and, yes, more delusional than anything we have seen in Washington itself. Does the President have any sense that his policies are not working? That they are driving up the cost of food and fuel? That the economic recovery has been slower than that of any previous recession? That job growth has been anemic and wage growth non-existent?
None of these facts appear to have registered, and as he takes to the campaign trail, Obama is finding ways to dodge them entirely. Speaking in front of friendly and intellectually lame audiences, he doesn't need to address anything. On campaign stops in Palo Alto and Chicago, Obama can escape into the fantasy of his own grandiose delusions. For while campaigning it is not necessary to actually do anything. All he need do is smile and strut, act pompous and petulant by turns, and accept the adulation of young followers on whom he believes his reelection hinges.
Beneath this smiling persona, however, there lies a political barbarian. Despite whatever he may say about the "higher tone" of his campaign, the barbaric impulses to which Obama appeals are those primitive impulses of greed and fear. There is the self-interest of union workers, especially public services employees and teachers, to whom he promises lifetime employment at ever-increasing and ever more unrealistic wage and benefit levels. There are the young voters, for whom he promises free tuition, free medical care, and the veiled suggestion of income transfers from "the rich." There are the senior citizens whom he frightens with false charges that the GOP will take away their Social Security and Medicare. There are the welfare recipients, whom he promises more cash benefits with no work requirements.
Altogether, this is not the vision of a better America. It is an appeal to the worst instincts of greed and fear. It is not the new politics of hope and change but the old, old politics of patronage and reaction. It is not civilized, or even civil, behavior, but that of a barbarian.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and article on American culture.