On the first Monday in October, Kasie Hunt of NBC asked U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, what his feelings were about President Obama’s response to the Ebola threat. He said, and I quote, “Ahhh-uhhhhhhhhhm,” followed by two minutes of gobbledygook. Two days later, Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator from Kentucky, was asked who she voted for in 2008 and 2012. Her answer was similarly excruciating, and foolish. She cited the privacy of the ballot box. And about the same time, former-nearly-everything Leon Panetta landed a hammer blow on his old boss: “He [Obama] approaches things like a law professor in presenting a logic of his position … My experience in Washington is that logic alone doesn’t work. Once you lay out a position, you are going to roll up your sleeves and you have to fight to get it done … In order for Presidents to succeed, they cannot just–when they run into problems–step back and give up.”
All of this, especially Panetta, added fuel to the eternal bonfire of venality from the right. That Obama’s presidency has “disintegrated” or “crumbled” is now an article of faith in the Fox holes. Drudge featured an Ebola poster with the O an Obama symbol. That’s about as funny as MoveOn.org’s infamous “General Betrayus” ad. So it’s over, right? Obama’s toast, or a spectacularly terrible President at the very least, right?
Uhhhhhm. This is the part where I’m supposed to defend the President. He really did pull us out of a probable depression with an effective stimulus package; the economy continues to wheeze, but it wheezes forward. He really did make history by producing a universal health care plan that will not be repealed but will be reformed over time. The nonstop Republican critique that these programs were “disasters” has been rendered ridiculous. (In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell had to pull a Mark Pryor on that state’s very successful version of Obama’s plan.) The President has been sane and relatively moderate in his selection of Supreme Court Justices. His proposed job-growth policies would probably work, if given a chance by the Republicans.
He has been sane, too, in his foreign policy, for the most part. Those who say he should have been tougher on ISIS by arming the Syrian rebels–talking to you, Madam Secretary and Mr. Panetta–are wildly wrong. We would have wound up arming ISIS. There is precedent for this: we offered a fabulous buffet of armaments to the Iraqis, who left them for ISIS as they turned tail and ran in Mosul. Obama did cleave to the dreadful Nouri al-Maliki too uncritically–and thereby allowed a corrupt Shi’ite fragment to call its sectarian tune. That was Obama’s fundamental Iraq mistake.
But who hasn’t made an Iraq mistake over the past decade? The proof of Obama’s moderation can be found in the blundering simplicity of his critics: the neo-imperialists who think we can actually determine, by force of arms, what happens in the Middle East; the left-libertarians who don’t think we have the right to protect ourselves from terrorism by launching drone strikes, conducting special operations and tracking terrorist phone calls. Obama has stood as a bulwark against the irrationalities of both parties.
That’s the case for Obama. I really believe it. But I also believe that Panetta has a point. It is about the ethereal nature of true leadership. I remember writing a similar defense of Jimmy Carter nearly 40 years ago: a great number of the policies that Ronald Reagan was later given credit for launching–Paul Volcker’s tough inflation cure; a bristling stand against the Soviets, including intermediate missiles in Europe–were Carter’s policies first. He slugged his way to a historic peace treaty in the Middle East, but he didn’t convey two essential American qualities: forcefulness and optimism. Indeed, if you look at his infamous “malaise” speech, it’s a riveting piece of work, containing more tough truth about the country than the pile of Democratic utterances in the ensuing decade. I remember thinking, Poor Jimmy: history has led America to a rut, and we’ll never be as powerful as we once were. Reagan proved me young and foolish. Some of his achievements are illusory or attributable to Carter policies (as in economics), but the man knew how to lead.
I can’t say that for Obama. I sense that Panetta is right about his unwillingness to fight. Lately, the President’s body language has too often conveyed disgust and cynicism. He seems defeated by the trivial pursuits of the media and his opponents. He does not have the sunny conviction necessary to carry the country through a period of near biblical plagues and wars. His policies and popularity have been crippled by his dour political sense. A basic law of politics: this cannot last. But I have no idea what comes next.
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Read next: A Troubled American Moment
This appears in the October 27, 2014 issue of TIME.