Perhaps he is. If so, there were certainly signs long before Wednesday night in Denver. A look at the president’s career shows he has never stayed in a job four years without looking to move on to something better.Carol Platt Liebau, who knew Obama in law school, laughs at a New Yorker profile that blames his lackluster performance in the debate on his "decorous courtesy, to try to persuade, to reframe his interlocutor’s view, to signal his understanding while disagreeing." In this view, he's such a conciliator that he won't go for the jugular. Liebau laughs this off.
After a year or two as a community organizer, Obama became deeply frustrated by his inability to enact the kind of big changes in society that he wanted to see. He went to Harvard Law School to plug into the power structure that would help him make those changes in the future. Returning to Chicago three years later, he dabbled in the practice of law before winning a seat in the state Senate in 1996. But he became frustrated with the job almost immediately; according to a Washington Post profile, Obama began “chafing … at the limitations of legislating in Springfield.”
The easily-bored state legislator almost immediately began planning a run for the U.S. House in 2000 — which turned out to be his only losing campaign. Shortly thereafter, he set his sights on the U.S. Senate, winning in 2004.
But within a year after arriving in Washington in early 2005, Obama was restless again. According to the election account Game Change, in 2006 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “sensed [Obama's] frustration and impatience, had heard rumblings that Obama was already angling to head back home and take a shot at the Illinois governorship.”
“I know that you don’t like it, doing what you’re doing,” Reid told Obama, according to Game Change. Reid suggested Obama run for president instead. Soon Obama was doing just that.
Now Obama has been president for nearly four years. Aided by a huge Democratic majority from 2009 to 2011, he achieved some big things — massive stimulus, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize, essentially for showing up. But he hasn’t achieved, and won’t achieve in four more years, the “fundamental transformation” of American society that he envisioned. And his entire career suggests that by now he should be angling for a bigger, better job. The problem is, there isn’t such a position — and a second term in the same old job doesn’t count. The chief benefit of winning re-election to a second term might simply be to avoid being labeled a loser, to avoid joining Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush as presidents who couldn’t win a second time.
So if his liberal supporters sense signs of boredom and frustration in the president, they might be right. I wrote about this in a January 2010 column that began, “This is about the time Barack Obama becomes bored with his job.” Back then, he had just passed a year in office — about the time, in the past, that his restlessness and ambition began to kick in. Now, years later, the problem is only worse.
But as someone who knew Obama in law school, and now has observed his presidency, his avoidance of debate does seem to conform to a pattern. It has nothing to do with a gentlemanly or conciliatory reluctance to be aggressive. Rather, it has everything to do with a reluctance to be aggressive when his opponent ispresent -- where he can experience some push back from the person he's demonizing, and where his lack of preparation or knowledge can reveal him as foolish. (Hence, perhaps, the "decorous courtesy" in face to face encounters, where discourtesy might prompt a more vigorous blowback.)Couple this unwillingness to engage with someone who will fight back with the fact that Obama has a very weak case to make. His record is not inspiring and gives no one a reason to think that anything will be better in a second term. Ronald Brownstein writes in the National Journal that Obama needs to do better at telling us what his second-term agenda would be.
Think about it. There's never seen such a trash-talking campaigner -- one who accuses his opponent of lying, who allows his campaign to call Romney a murderer and a felon, one who calls Americans with whom he disagrees "fat cats," or accuses doctors of performing unnecessary surgeries. He has no problem going after Romney the day after the debate, when he's no longer there face-to-face, and when Obama's trusty teleprompter is back. In fact, President Obama is one of the least gentlemanly and most uncivil men to occupy the Oval Office -- certainly publicly (Richard Nixon's private utterances put him in the running, too).
Notice that the only time Obama apparently shrinks from throwing a punch is when his opponent can punch back. That's not a guy who's just too "conciliatory" to get down and dirty -- that's a guy who's afraid to get down and dirty when it means he might have to suffer the consequences.
In my book, that's what's known as a "bully" -- full of big talk in the locker room (or on Letterman) . . . but considerably less cocky when he actually has to address his opponent face to face, unprotected by the friendly aid of the MSM.
One of those vulnerabilities is Obama’s inability so far to enlighten voters about his second-term agenda. To the extent the president outlined goals during the debate, they were largely defensive. He wants to restore the tax rates for upper-income earners established under President Clinton, protect Medicare and Medicaid in their current form—and, above all, implement his health care plan. He didn’t talk nearly as much about what he might do in a second term to accelerate job growth. “You didn’t hear anything about how he is going to get the economy going,” jibed Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, after the debate. Other than blocking the GOP’s initiatives, Obama didn’t seem to be burning to accomplish much of anything over the next four years.He wants to press Romney for specifics, but he can't offer any of his own. And when he talks about what he'd like to change about the country's policies, Romney has the comeback to ask why Obama hasn't done anything about that since his inauguration. I thought one of the more devastating things Romney said when Obama talked about reducing the debt, Romney came back with "But you've been president for four years." Obama has no answer to such comments unless it is to blame the Republicans in Congress. And that just won't wash when we remember that Obama had filibuster-proof majorities in the Senate his first two years.
So no wonder the guy was avoiding eye contact with the American people last Wednesday. He has a miserable record and nothing to say about what he'd do for the second term. All he has left are attacks and lies about Romney. And that just doesn't work so well when Romney is there to answer back. I don't think it has anything about his not wanting to be president. If he's reelected, he'll be perfectly happy to use the prestige and perks of the office to continue to jet around and make celebrity appearances at basketball games and The View. He'll uses his new "flexibility" to double-down on bad policies. And he'll continue to demagogue his opponents. It's what he does and the man doesn't want to be labeled a loser. That's a strong enough motivation.
So instead of trying to psychoanalyze Obama to figure out why he did so poorly, we can look to how little he has to say.