He loves to engage conservatives, yet few of them have chosen to engage him. He is seen as too moderate by parts of the left, but the right thinks he has a radical statist agenda.
On torture, Obama sought a middle ground: He ended the practice, disclosed what happened, and then proposed we move on. Yet the right opposed disclosure, parts of the left wanted more accountability, and their fight brought back all of the bitterness Obama wants to put behind us.
But the mysteries and paradoxes of these 100 days cannot be unraveled without an understanding that the president is more than a "whatever works" guy. Obama would not inspire such loyalty if his supporters did not see (correctly) that he has an agenda to move the country to a very different place. He would not inspire such resistance if his opponents did not sense exactly the same thing.
It's equally clear that the financing for all this will depend more heavily on taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans, and assistance to the neediest Americans will grow. As one social activist to Obama's left who was closely involved in the stimulus fight observed, "When it has the opportunity, the administration always puts its thumb on the scale in favor of doing more for the poor." Obama doesn't tout that fact, and he is not a radical egalitarian. But he certainly is for more equality.
The first 100 of the 1,461 days allocated to a presidential term are an imperfect predictor of how a leader will ultimately be judged. But they do offer a clear look at a president's style. Obama, on the whole, has been as crisp a decision-maker and as calm an influence on his aides and his country as he was during the campaign.
Intelligence, Hofstadter argued, is an "unfailingly practical quality" that "works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals."
For Obama's base of progressive and liberal supporters, it is his intellectual side that draws such fierce loyalty and admiration, while his conservative foes mistrust the very part of him that imagines and dreams--because they do not share his dreams.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.