What’s weighing President Obama down? In a brilliant essay, Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic (and a Prospect alumna) argues that the emotional toll of his job—particularly, of presiding over two wars and having to reckon with their casualties—has emotionally “shut down” the president. “Running a drone war that kills innocent civilians, ordering the death of militants, overseeing a policy that’s led to an increase in American casualties in Afghanistan, and delivering funereal remarks at a ceremony honoring the returning remains of a slain American diplomat,” she writes, have taken a toll on the “easy swagger and rambunctiously playful enthusiasm” that he displayed in his 2008 campaign.
I think my friend Garance is on to something serious here, but I want to broaden the diagnosis. Every night, we know, Obama reads ten of the multitude of letters that Americans send him to let him know what their lives are like, to ask him for some kind of help. At a time when the American middle class is barely hanging on and when good, secure jobs that Americans had 30 and 40 years ago are growing steadily more scarce, this cannot be pleasant experience. He can surely feel good about the passage of Obamacare, which will enable tens of millions of such Americans to get affordable health care. But Obama understands the limits on what he can do to transform the American economy—the limits of having to deal with intransigent congressional Republicans, who will still be there should he win a second term, and the deeper limits imposed by the transformation of American capitalism into a radically more inegalitarian system.
Obama is the first president forced to confront the large-scale evisceration of the American middle class. Incomes for all but the wealthiest Americans had been stagnating for decades when he took office, but cheap credit had kept the middle class afloat. The year before he took office, however, that credit abruptly dried up. Obama’s challenge has been to get the real economy working again, which he’s tried to do in multiple ways: saving the auto industry, pushing for more investment in infrastructure, improving the quality of schools. But the offshoring and robotization of manufacturing, the rise of contingent employment, and the effective extirpation of unions in the private sector have reduced both the quantity and quality of American jobs. Solving these problems requires conceptualizing and actualizing policies that go well beyond the limits of current American politics.
The president understands all of this. In his 2008 campaign and in a number of speeches he’s given as president, he’s described and decried how our economy descended from making things to making deals. He understands the magnitude of our challenge and the paltriness of the means available to him to surmount it. And he has those ten nightly letters to remind him of all this lest, even for a minute, he forget.
That, I suggest, is as much the source of his reticence about his second-term agenda as any other reason. That, I suspect, is as much the cause of his funk as the wars and the deaths that Garance describes. Iraq is done and Afghanistan is winding down. The war to rebuild America continues and American capitalism, in its destruction of the middle class, is a formidable foe.