James Fallows has an interesting piece entitled “Obama, Explained” in the new Atlantic. I strongly recommend the article. It is insightful, relatively evenhanded, and illustrated with some excerpts from interviews with a broad array of sources.
An important question frames his analysis:
This is the central mystery of his performance as a candidate and a president. Has Obama in office been anything like the chess master he seemed in the campaign, whose placid veneer masked an ability to think 10 moves ahead, at which point his adversaries would belatedly recognize that they had lost long ago? Or has he been revealed as just a pawn—a guy who got lucky as a campaigner but is now pushed around by political opponents who outwit him and economic trends that overwhelm him?
Fallows examines in some detail several standard complaints, including Obama’s inexperience, his personal coldness, and complacency about the talent of those he appoints. Overall, there seems to be a good deal of substance to these complaints. He finds Obama’s greatest strength in foreign policy. In the end, of course, the question of whether Obama is remembered as a chess master or a pawn will depend on what happens in 2012.
As Fallows concludes:
If Barack Obama loses this fall, he will forever seem a disappointment: a symbolically important but accidental figure who raised hopes he could not fulfill and met difficulties he did not know how to surmount. He meant to show the unity of America but only underscored its division. As a candidate, he symbolized transformation; in office, he applied incrementalism and demonstrated the limits of change. His most important achievement, helping forestall a second Great Depression, will be taken for granted or discounted in the dismay about the economic problems he did not solve. His main legislative accomplishment, the health-care bill, may well be overturned; his effect on America’s international standing will pass; his talk about bridging the partisan divide will seem one more sign of his fatal naïveté. If he is reelected, he will have a chance to solidify what he has accomplished and, more important, build on what he has learned. All of this is additional motivation, as if he needed any, for him to drive for reelection; none of it makes him any more palatable to those who oppose him and his goals.