Nearly five years into his presidency, and nearly a decade after he first sprang to national notice with his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, there is still no such thing as Obamaism — no clearly understood philosophy or larger strategy of governance.
To the contrary, the president and his team have always had an allergic reaction to being placed on an ideological spectrum with any more precision than that he is a pragmatic progressive. Whatever that means. He has never tried to fashion a “Third Way” philosophy in the style of Bill Clinton, or stood for bold liberalism of the type exemplified by Ted Kennedy or, more recently, Elizabeth Warren.
This vagueness may have worked in his favor in two elections. But its problem for governing, as seen in recent weeks, is that it tends to leave Obama all alone, in a capital where he desperately needs allies and people who assume good will about the political maneuvering necessary for any effective president. Liberals regarded Obama as a sell-out for flirting with a Summers nomination, while the remnants of Clinton’s “New Democrats” have long been frustrated by Obama as someone who never really shared their critique of traditional interest-group urban liberalism.
On Syria, neither hawks nor doves believed that Obama was acting on any principle deeper than desperate improvisation to get out of a jam.