In the prologue to the second of his autobiographies, "The Audacity of Hope," Barack Obama said: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."
Stanford University professor Shelby Steele, who, like Mr. Obama, has a black father and a white mother, thinks the key to Mr. Obama's popularity in 2008 was his racial identity.
"Obama's special charisma ... always came much more from the racial idealism he embodied than from his political ideas," wrote Mr. Steele.
The desire among whites to rid themselves of racial guilt crossed party and ideological lines, but was felt most strongly by white liberals. White liberals could relate to Barack Obama because -- as a product of elite private schools and Ivy League colleges -- he was much like them.
"I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," said then-Sen. Joe Biden. Mr. Obama could become the nation's first black president, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, because he was "light-skinned," and had "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
Mr. Obama's campaign speeches consisted mostly of empty platitudes, which nevertheless were greeted with wild applause.
"Obama's appeal comes not from the things he says, but from who is saying them," wrote columnist Froma Harrop during the campaign. Though mostly a fan, Ms. Harrop noted that in "The Audacity of Hope," Mr. Obama wrote "my treatment of the issues is often partial and incomplete." Ms. Harrop said, "It takes some doing for a politician to write a 364-page book, his second volume, and skate past all controversy."
Being a "blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views" is a good way to be elected president ... especially when the incumbent is saddled with an unpopular war and the stock market melts down two months before the election. But after two years in office, that blank screen can look more like an empty suit.
"For a man who won office talking about change we can believe in, Barack Obama can be a strangely passive president," wrote Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus last week. She generally supports him but says "there are a startling number of occasions in which the president has been missing in action -- unwilling, reluctant or late to weigh in on the issue of the moment. He is, too often, more reactive than inspirational, more cautious than forceful. The dots connect to form an unsettling portrait of a 'Where's Waldo?' presidency."
The "Where's Waldo?" presidency is most evident in foreign policy. In Egypt, Mr. Obama's vacillation alienated both the regime of President Hosni Mubarak and those protesting it.
Mr. Mubarak was an ally of the United States, so perhaps some indecision is explicable, if not excusable. But Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi is an enemy of the United States, so when he began slaughtering his own people, why did it take Mr. Obama so long to respond?
"By the time of Obama's empty speech, even the notoriously lenient Arab League had suspended Libya's participation, and several of Gadhafi's senior diplomatic envoys had bravely defected," noted columnist Christopher Hitchens, who'd supported Mr. Obama in 2008.
Britain and France have taken more action to protect the rebels from Mr. Gadhafi's wrath than the United States. The situation is so bad that one Libyan dissident called upon former President George H.W. Bush for help. " 'Bring Bush! Make a no-fly zone. Bomb the planes,' shouted soldier-turned-rebel Nasr Ali," reported Reuters.
Mr. Obama has mostly been missing in action on big domestic issues, too. His proposed budget "punted" on the fiscal crisis, The Washington Post noted in a caustic editorial. And he's delegated to Vice President Biden the task of negotiating with House Republicans on the budget.
Mr. Obama has backtracked on many of the campaign promises he made in 2008, such as closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and imposing no new taxes on the middle class. He has even reneged on his implicit promise to be a racial healer. His administration has been the most racially polarizing since Woodrow Wilson's.
In 2008, much of the news media projected onto the blank screen that was Barack Obama what they thought we wanted to see in a president. Mr. Obama's "brilliance" -- which pundits asserted without offering much evidence -- more than compensated for the thinness of his resume, they assured us.
It's time now for them to show us the little man behind the curtain.