Barack Obama: Just Too Much of a Complex Pragmatist for Today's Voters to Figure Out

Is Barack Obama just too complex for voters to figure out? That was the premise behind the Sunday Week in Review lead story by Richard Stevenson,"The Muddled Selling of the President."

Stevenson denied Obama was a liberal (despite his push for government-supervised health care and $787 billion in "economic stimulus" spending), suggesting he was too "complex" for such a label. Further, he wondered if Obama's recent political struggles means it's no longer "possible to embrace complexity in a political and media culture that demands simple themes and promotes conflict?"

On this much, President Obama's friends and foes could agree: He eludes simple labels.

Yes, he's a liberal, except when he's not
. He's antiwar, except for the one he's escalating. He's for bailouts, but wants to rein in the banks. He's concentrating ever-more power in the West Wing, except when he's being overly deferential to Congress. He's cool, except when he's fighting-hot.

In a world that presents so many fast-moving and intractable problems, nuance, flexibility, pragmatism - even a full range of human emotions - are no doubt good things. But as Mr. Obama wrapped up his State of the Union address on Wednesday night with an appeal to transcend partisan gamesmanship, he was plaintively testing a broader proposition: Is it possible to embrace complexity in a political and media culture that demands simple themes and promotes conflict?

The president, whose hallmark has been ideological eclecticism, would clearly like to think the answer is yes. But a year into his presidency, Mr. Obama has lost control of his political narrative, his ability to define the story of his presidency on his own terms. And the main reason is that his story is no longer so simple or easy to tell.


Rather than moving distinctly right or left or ratcheting up the fighting-mode response he tried out after his party's stunning loss in the Massachusetts Senate race, his approach last week was to offer something to everyone. There was a promise to move ahead on a measure to allow gay men and women to serve openly in the military, reassurance that the war in Iraq is coming to an end, reassurance that he would fight on in Afghanistan, and proposals for tax cuts for small business, tax credits for families with children, a tax on banks and a freeze on a portion of domestic spending. To Republicans, there was a promise that he would listen to their ideas.

The big question is whether voters perceive him as post-ideological and pragmatic or inconsistent and pandering. He's not likely to get much help from today's political-media complex, where it is easy to be undercut by ideological crossfire and there are few platforms for nuance.

Stevenson singled out both Fox News and MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow as attacking Obama before again suggesting the president was a "pragmatist" (a term connoting political moderation) as so many of his journalistic compatriots at the Times have done.