Skip to main content

Has Obama found his voice?

By H. W. Brands, Special to CNN
President Barack Obama acknowledges applause after his speech at the memorial service for Tucson shooting victims.
President Barack Obama acknowledges applause after his speech at the memorial service for Tucson shooting victims.
  • President Obama is at the midpoint of his turbulent term
  • H.W. Brands says Obama faces a difficult choice for his next two years
  • He asks: Does Obama compromise with the GOP to help the country?
  • Or does Obama revert to campaign mode to strengthen his chances of re-election?

Editor's note: H. W. Brands is the author of "TR: The Last Romantic" and "Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt." He teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin.

(CNN) -- Barack Obama has found his voice again. America first heard him in 2004, when his address to the Democratic national convention electrified the delegates and marked the young Illinois legislator as a political comer.

The country heard him again, and often, during the presidential campaign of 2008, when his message of hope resonated with millions who had lost faith in the ability of democracy to address the needs of the nation in a compassionate, constructive way. The world heard him give an inaugural address that touched historic chords of American memory while reviving the American dream.

Obama then seemed to lose his voice amid the hubbub of financial crisis, economic distress and partisan politics. But in Tucson, Arizona, on January 12, when he memorialized the victims of the shooting there, the president reminded Americans of both parties that he is one of the most compelling speakers to occupy the White House in the last half-century.

The question, at the midpoint of Obama's term, is what this means. Will the poetic Obama have better luck dealing with his political opponents than the prosaic president of the last two years? Will his supporters again rally to him as they did during the 2008 campaign? Will the country give him credit for his accomplishments?

The obvious answer, of course, is that only time will tell. But the experience of previous presidents offers some hints. In the first place, it affords a reminder of the extraordinarily difficult circumstances Obama has confronted.

Though likened in 2009 to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, Obama had it harder than Roosevelt. FDR inherited a disaster, Obama merely a crisis. A disaster you can credibly blame on your predecessor, as FDR did on Hoover. A crisis you have to handle yourself, and handle very carefully.

While 'Yes, we can' is an appropriate slogan for a candidate, the operative phrase for a president is 'No, you can't.'
--H.W. Brands
Nation pauses to honor Tucson victims
Watch Obama's entire Tucson speech
Analyzing Pres. Obama's Tucson speech

When Obama became president, his words for the first time carried real weight. A single false note and the financial crisis could metastasize into a full-blown depression.

The White House as a home address dampens anyone's oratory. Theodore Roosevelt is remembered for stirring sound bites, but they all date from the times when he was not president. While chief executive, TR really did speak softly (and carry a big stick).

Lyndon Johnson exhibited the same effect. The "Johnson treatment" -- the notorious badgering, bribing, threatening by the Texan as Senate majority leader -- made his fellow lawmakers cringe, and cooperate. But once he stepped behind the lectern emblazoned with the presidential seal, Johnson was uncharacteristically restrained. His expressions grew wooden; his words, with rare exceptions, fell dead from his lips.

The larger problem is that governing is different from campaigning. Obama showed himself in 2008 to be a virtuoso campaigner, and his election rewarded his performance. But while "Yes, we can" is an appropriate slogan for a candidate, the operative phrase for a president is "No, you can't." To govern is to choose, and every choice entails disappointment for those not chosen.

In governing mode, Obama has proved himself a pragmatist. He's achieved a remarkable amount in two years -- stabilizing the financial sector, keeping unemployment from exploding, establishing a framework for regulating Wall Street, reforming health care, ratifying arms control, opening the door for gays to serve openly in the military -- but he's gotten scant credit. His opponents naturally don't like what he's done; his supporters remember the glorious promise of the campaign and feel he's fallen short.

The Tucson speech shows he's still got the speaking chops. It may signal he's back in campaign mode. This is good for his re-election chances; whether it is good for the country is another matter. James K. Polk had one of the most successful presidencies of the 19th century largely because he pre-emptively rejected re-election. Closer to our time, George H. W. Bush demonstrated what can be accomplished if an incumbent is willing to sacrifice a shot at a second term.

The elder Bush's finest hour was reneging on his injudicious "read my lips" pledge of no new taxes; the compromise he cut with the Democrats put the budget on track to balance and fueled the prosperity of the 1990s. But it led to Bush's defeat in 1992 after it invited Ross Perot into the race.

Is this Obama's future: doing what's right for the country but what's wrong for him politically? The matter isn't entirely in his control. He will have to find Republicans who are willing to meet him halfway on taxes and spending. But if he should go the route of legislative compromise and electoral defeat, the American people could be the double beneficiaries. They will get the principled bargain necessary to restore the economy, and they will almost certainly be treated to the most uplifting valedictory ever uttered by a departing president.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of H.W. Brands.