Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. The president tells us he prefers a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, one that weds “revenue enhancements” (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with “entitlement cuts” (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who’ve worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president’s storytelling.
I think that's a fair description of what has happened. And the waffling wasn't just when Republicans got the House. He conceded things to moderate democrats as well, stuff he said during the campaign he wanted. And let's not forget foreign policy and national security. He has done almost the complete opposite of nearly everything he said he wanted to do. And he has more control over policy in those areas than domestic policy. So I'm not sure how this analysis would fit into the non-domestic policy area:
The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb — that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians. Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems. A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.
A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there — the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.
The first explanation is the one Glenn Greenwald has been pushing and one that I've increasingly come to agree with. Looking at the evidence its hard to say this isn't part of Obama's problem. The second explanation is increasingly more likely as well. Campaigns are largely about structural forces. But at the margins Obama's skills will be tested. He will have explain to moderates why the economy hasn't improved much. And because of his actions and how he has presented those actions he will have to explain to liberals why he has cast them to the side in exchange for, at best, mediocre policies.
If the the economy doesn't improve over the next year I don't think he can do that. Even if it improves he is going to have a hard time because people like me aren't going to buy the bullshit anymore. It was easy to believe after 8 years of the complete failure of the Bush administration. After that disaster even a turd sandwich looks appetizing. Part of making himself look like something more than that will be his messaging. I think he needs to ditch some of the lofty rhetoric and most of the bipartisan crap and replace it will directness about reality and the fact that the other side doesn't live in it.
But most of it will come from strongly pursuing liberal policies and not backing down merely in order to compromise. That means cutting defense more than domestic spending, making any cuts to domestic spending less harmful to the poor and middle class, and raising revenue in some manner. If he can't get at least one of those things then I don't see why liberals should think he is fit for office.