WASHINGTON — As the old gospel song goes, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
He’s going to make sure your new car from General Motors or Chrysler gets fixed. He’s going to make sure you get health care — sooner or later. And if your town is crippled by the demise of the auto industry, he’ll send a “czar” to protect it.
Look out folks, he’s Super Prez!
As a teen in Honolulu, Barry Obama was a fan — a big fan — of comic book heroes, particularly, by his own account, Spiderman and Conan the Barbarian.
Now, three decades later, he’s all grown up and playing a political superhero as president.
Obama is reshaping corporate boardrooms. He is firing CEOs. He has pushed, so far with ease, unprecedented spending plans through the Congress. He’ll ultimately do the same (just watch) with his colossal budget. He’s creating new White House “czars” left and right, expanding the direct administrative power of his presidency. He’s engineering fundamental shifts in philosophy on everything from pollution to health care to the funding of education.
And he seems to be doing all of this virtually on his own, as if floating on air.
Deft aides are operating mostly behind the scenes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to be perennially on the road. And Rahm Emanuel, the salty-tongued chief of staff, is staying out of the limelight for the most part.
The visible aides and cabinet-types appear publicly as a legion of colorless drones.
Even Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and budget director Peter Orszag slip easily into their roles as Mr. Spock and Commander Sulu of The Starship Barack.
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Which frees Captain Kirk (you guessed it, Obama) to appear on everything from “The Tonight Show,” to “Face the Nation,” to “60 Minutes,” to ESPN, and to a virtual town hall. There’s even word he’s considering a call-in show on C-SPAN.
Other than Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, no president in modern history has claimed (or gotten) more power and visibility.
This super president is the product of a number of events and factors, some intentional, others simple twists of fate.
Video: Obama delivers tough message to Detroit Was Obama by nature a closet statist, eager to impose the will of government on every phase of economic activity? Having covered him in the Senate and on the campaign trail, my answer is “no.”
True, he had virtually no experience in business or the private sector, and his work as a community organizer focused on ameliorating the pain caused by corporate failure.
At the University of Chicago his law education focused not on economics or corporations but on civil rights and the Constitution. His parents were academics — Obama is, in fact, the first president with double Ph.D.s in his family tree.
Still, I saw no animosity to the market. I saw and reported on a man who seemed to care about balance — in life, in politics and in philosophy.
His first instinct did not seem to be to order up “more government,” let alone more power for the presidency. In fact, he spent months criticizing the aggrandizements of George W. Bush.
But then, as it often happens in the back-story of a member of the Legion of Superheroes, a laboratory experiment went horribly awry. It was called the global-credit economy, and it got caught in a white-hot meltdown just as Obama assumed the presidency. And the man who emerged from that scorching vat was a rather different character.
Suddenly, the tactical boldness Obama had applied while seeking office was translated into an action plan for the economy. He concluded that presidential action — and lots of it — was the indispensable first step toward recovery and his own chances for re-election.
He was (and remains) popular, and is determined to use that asset to the fullest as long as he has it. He had (and has) a largely willing partner in the Democratic Congress. For liberals there, it has been 25 years since they had a real champion with a chance at national leadership. His name was Ted Kennedy. So Obama is tapping into a quarter century of pent-up Democratic demand at a time when most mainstream economists still agree that government spending remains the key to recovery.
And Obama himself seems to be responding eagerly to his own enhanced role — some of it born of economic necessity, at least as he sees it.
So far, the feedback loop of fame and power must feel pretty positive. It sure looks that way. The confident cool that so many found attractive last year remains. But now, there is an occasional moment of muscle flexing — even if it is behind closed doors.
At a private meeting with House Democrats this week, one member urged Obama to propose more money for roads and bridges. The president tartly reminded the fellow that he had voted “no” on the original stimulus package, which contained money for that very purpose.
“Don’t think we’re not keeping score, brother,” Obama added. There was laughter all around, but nobody missed the point: The president was at the helm, firmly in control.
I’d add just one thing. Every superhero has a weakness, and it is generally related to his or her great strength. In Obama’s case, it’s his confidence in his own abilities as a leader.
It is a great thing, and it has helped the country enormously so far, but he needs to be careful.
It’s not just about him.
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