Presidents don’t fundamentally change personalities while in office, but different aspects of their personality arise at different times. The first two years of the Obama presidency were the audacious phase: promoting a giant health care reform in the middle of an economic crisis and continuing to support it even after a Republican won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.
But, more recently, Obama has entered his cagey phase. I don’t mean deceptive. I mean cautious, incremental, clever, maneuvering to reduce one’s vulnerabilities to mollify opposing forces.
In Afghanistan, Obama increased troop levels, to please his generals. while announcing a withdrawal date to please his party. On deficit reduction, Obama has often said he agrees with the Simpson-Bowles approach, while simultaneously distancing himself from the specific proposals. On tax reform, Obama has frequently said he wants to simplify the code while simultaneously proposing loopholes that make it more complex.
Obama has gotten tough on China while getting friendly with China. He has ratcheted up the heat on Iran while trying to restrain Israel. He has promoted new oil and gas exploration while blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would transport it.
One of the crucial moments of his presidency came in April of last year. Usually, presidents lead by proposing a budget and everybody reacts. But Obama decided to hang back and let Rep. Paul Ryan propose a Republican budget. Then, after everybody saw the size of the cuts Ryan was proposing, Obama could come in with his less-scary alternative. That is cageyness personified.
Obama has always had a cautious, cool professional streak, and a tendency to see both sides of any issue. In many ways, this serves him well. You want a leader who tries to balance. The cagey phase has certainly served Obama well politically. Liberals pine for the transcendent emotionalism of the 2008 campaign, but, by being incremental and reducing his exposure, he has made himself more acceptable to independents.
It has also served him well in foreign policy. Obama’s hot-and-cold approaches to China, Russia and Iran have generally been excellent.
But I wonder if this style will serve him well domestically, given the situation he will face if he wins re-election.
In December, a re-elected Obama would face three immediate challenges: the Bush tax cuts expire; there will be another debt-ceiling fight; mandatory spending cuts kick in. In addition, there will be an immediate need to cut federal deficits.
As the economy recovers and demand for private borrowing increases, then huge public deficits on top of that will push up interest rates, crowd out private investment and smother the recovery.
These big problems won’t be solved during the transition. They are too complicated. Congress will find a mechanism to delay, and the nation will embark on a major effort to do tax reform, entitlement reform and debt reduction. This grand project—reforming the basic institutions of government—will consume the first two years of the next president’s new term, no matter who is elected. It has to get done or a debt crisis will be imminent.
Leading the country through this will require the intelligence, balance and craftiness Obama has demonstrated. But it will also require indomitable inner conviction and an aggressive drive to push change. It will require a fearless champion who will fight all the interests that love the tax code the way it is. It will require a fervent crusader to rally the country behind shared sacrifice. It will take an impervious leader willing to spread spending cuts everywhere and offend everybody all at once. There will have to be a clearly defined vision of what government will look like at the end.
Obama has talked vaguely about tax reform. He has acknowledged the need for entitlement reform and major deficit reduction. But he has never thrown himself All In.
It will be interesting, over the course of this campaign, to see what’s underneath the cageyness. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, arouses Obama’s passion to go All In.•
Brooks is a New York Times columnist. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.