Life keeps getting worse for President Obama. It is not just that the conservative press, which never liked him, has a new note of confidence and even joy as it pursues a quarry whose blood reporters think they can smell. It is not just that he lost control of Congress in the midterms. No: the mainstream, liberal press and the American left are deserting him now. The San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and even Michael Moore have turned on the Messiah. “Take off your pink tutu!” Moore commanded the President on Bill Maher. Jeremiah Wright must feel vindicated down under the bus; now the rest of the left increasingly sees Obama as weak, opportunistic, and unprincipled.
We and the President were always likely to come to this point. The adulation lavished on a one-term senator of little life experience was not a good thing for anyone. For Obama, it fed an already enlarged self-esteem that had become grotesque by the inauguration. A cruelly accurate piece by Jonathan Last in The Weekly Standard highlights the ghastly series of intentional evocations of Lincoln that a delusionally imprudent White House team put forward in the flush of victory.
Important note to all future denizens of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first compare to Abraham Lincoln. Comparisons to Washington, Lincoln, or to either Roosevelt, if any, should come from other people, never from you or from anyone on your payroll — and preferably should come late in a presidential term, not when the incumbent still has that shiny new president smell.
There’s an epidemic now of repentance from Obama voters. That isn’t me. My eyes were open in the voting booth and I had a pretty good idea of what we were getting when I voted for him. I have always thought he was too liberal for the American people and too inexperienced to know it. I hoped things wouldn’t come to this point, but thought it was likely and still thought he was the best of the two available picks. You vote for the candidates you have.
I voted for Obama in 2008 not because I thought he was ready to be president or because I thought the Democrats had learned anything from the Bush years. I voted for Obama because the United States needs a government, and that is something that John McCain and the Republicans were simply unable to provide at the time. Incompetence, corruption and political decay had brought the Grand Old Party to a point of incoherence and systemic failure; the party was suffering a mental breakdown and it needed a nice, quiet rest. If we were to stick to President Bush’s timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, refocus our efforts on Afghanistan and take the edge off world anger at American foreign policy while stepping up drone attacks in Pakistan and keeping Guantanamo open until we found a realistic alternative, Democrats were going to have to do it. If we were going to return some semblance of stability to global financial markets and give the economy some support and a breathing space, that too would have to come from fresh leadership.
That President Obama would be out of his depth, that the resurgent Democrats would overplay their hand, that stale liberal pieties would not translate into effective policy at home or abroad and that contractors would not be surveying Mount Rushmore during Obama’s first term always seemed more likely than not. In some ways the administration disappointed even my meager hopes: turning the stimulus plan over to a poorly-led, pork-craving Congress to design was an unforced error that not even a rookie should have made. In other important respects, however, my slender hopes were fulfilled and a little more. On the whole and with some slips here and there, President Obama has handled the wars and the struggle against terror responsibly; he has not been ensorcelled by the Europeans into overestimating their world role and he has gotten the big picture in Asia largely right.
Given all this, the Republican victory in the midterms is a well-earned comeuppance and a healthy corrective; it is only too bad that voters have to reward one undeserving party in order to administer richly merited punishment to the other, but that is an inherent limitation of our two party system.
However, just as the adulation that attended the inauguration of an untested neophyte was out of proportion both to his merits and his prospects, the cynicism and disdain that surrounds President Obama now is also overblown. President Obama may not turn out to be the new Lincoln; but neither is he fated to be the new James Buchanan. It is still much too soon to tell whether he will be the new Jimmy Carter.
President Obama is not the infallible genius of his supporters’ fondest hopes, but neither is he the clueless clown his less discerning opponents and his disillusioned ex-acolytes now think him. He remains a highly intelligent, extremely ambitious person who seeks approval and success. Now for the first time in many years he is having to operate in an environment whose rules he does not fully understand. As far as I can tell, he is baffled, angered and confused. He is not sure why all this is happening or why the magic that used to work so reliably now seems to fail every time.
Well, OK. No president really knows what he (and perhaps someday she) is getting into before putting that hand on the Bible. And America’s bad habit of electing charismatic outsiders with little or no experience in high politics or the management of big institutions guarantees some unhappy learning moments for our leaders and the rest of us. Now we begin to find out what this man is made of, and what he does when the chips are down.
In January 2009, newly inaugurated President Obama believed that the road to success as president lay in pleasing the kind of intellectuals and the high priests of the liberal religion whose esteem he had long sought and pretty much always obtained. He seems to have thought that groups like the editorial board of the New York Times actually represented some serious force in American life. He also seems to have believed that with a few tweaks here and there what passes for political orthodoxy among the intelligentsia of the civil service unions provides a coherent and practical governing philosophy for the United States and that the aspirations of the most legalistically minded of the human rights community describe a feasible path toward world peace. He believed that if we were nicer to the leaders of other countries they would be nicer to us — with one important exception. He believed that if the President of the United States shook his little finger, the Prime Minister of Israel had no choice but to tremble and obey.
Of course none of these things are true; President Obama has been putting his ideas into practice and now he is coming to terms with the results. Worse, from his point of view, he is feeling for the first time in his life one of the nastiest, most venomous and least attractive features in American life: the rage and loathing of a frustrated left. (Fairness alert: I’m not saying the angry right is better; there’s enough evil in human nature for everyone to have a full share.)
Many people on the left deeply need to believe that the Left has both history and the American people on its side. When Obama looked like a transformational figure who would end the nightmarish Reagan-Thatcher era, slay the chauvinistic dragon of American exceptionalism, rebuild the temples of affirmative action and gun control, and put the nation back on the road to social heaven — the tribunes and the mouthpieces of the Left couldn’t get enough of him. They praised him to the skies, compared him to Abraham Lincoln and FDR, waved palms at his procession, strewed their garments on the road and sang Hosannah to the Son of David as he ambled into the New Jerusalem on a donkey colt.
He’s been President for almost two years now and it turns out that not even President Obama can command the sun to stand still or turn back the tide. Utopian fantasies like the Universal Treaty of Environmental Goodness have been revealed for the pathetic delusions they always were. Using large congressional majorities to pass unpopular liberal legislation turns out not to be the path to long-term power. Right populism is on steroids, left populism on life support; the dream has turned dark.
The Left can only interpret all this as the failure of Obama. It can’t be the failure of left-liberal governance or ideas. It is intellectually and morally inadmissible to suppose that the left-liberal politics of the twentieth century have passed their sell-by date and will destroy any political leader (or any nation) that attempts to live by them. Therefore, since liberalism cannot fail, the only possible conclusion is that Obama isn’t doing it right.
Hence the typically rude and demeaning scorn of Michael Moore, hence the obsessional scolding of Paul Krugman, hence the wails and second guessing in the New York Review of Books. It is now necessary for the Left to believe in Obama’s responsibility for the political failure of his presidency to date; the only alternative would be to say that the Left was wrong — and since that is unthinkable the conclusions are clear.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of these ideas among many members of the chattering classes. The better natured will do it more in sorrow than in anger, but the Failed Prophet must die lest the True Faith be shamed. Ride in to Jerusalem on a donkey, walk out carrying your cross: it is a very old and very sad story.
The question for all of us is what does the President do now? Does he waffle and wander, dazed and confused in fogs of self pity and self justification until a merciful calendar brings his failed term to a close? Does he double down, convinced that the American people will rally round him if he will only let his true inner liberal break free? Does he skillfully triangulate, dancing and dazzling as he wrong foots his enemies until 2012 brings a new opportunity for a renewed mandate?
Although I am sure there are mornings when he’s tempted, I don’t think he’ll pick box number one: I don’t expect him to tuck his tail between his legs and slink away. The President is too driven and, yes, too smart and too talented to give up so quickly. Moreover the emotional liberals now calling for his crucifixion are as delusional as the ones who hailed him as Messiah just two years ago. He is no more a failed president today than he was Abraham Lincoln two years ago. The RealClearPolitics poll average gives him an approval rating in the mid forties; that is actually not bad for a two-year president during a recession. The odds still favor his re-election in 2012, though they are shorter than they were six months ago. President Obama still has the time and the power to shape his own fate and legacy; I have to believe (and frankly to hope) he will try.
I hope he will neither double down nor triangulate. I hope he will find some time over the holiday season to reflect on his presidency to date and ask himself what if anything the world has been trying to teach him these last two years. Here are some of the questions he should ask himself:
Why has all the ‘get tough with Israel’ advice from Middle East ‘realists’ led him to one disaster after another? Why has ‘split the difference’ strategy in Afghanistan worked so poorly? Why is it that every time he listens to environmentalists something politically bad happens? What are the three to five fixes he could make that would take the edge of the health care debate? Why is it that public service unions so consistently give advice that is bad for both his political health and the future of the country? Why does he have so much trouble persuading the white working class that he is on their side? Why don’t conciliatory gestures to foreign leaders and political currents lead to concrete negotiating concessions? Why does his staff keep sending him to high profile, high stakes international negotiating events (Copenhagen I on the Olympics, Copenhagen II on climate, Seoul on Free Trade) without a winning script? Why does all the advice from the legalistic Goody Two-Shoes community turn out to be unworkable (as on Guantanamo) or destructively unpopular (as on the question of trying KSM in Manhattan)?
The answers to these questions, rigorously pursued, would lead him to some ideas and positions that could reinvigorate his presidency at home and abroad. It would also lead him to make some personnel changes that would see him better served. Failing to ask them will give him another two years much like the last.
The test of every leader, and of every person, comes when life brings you face-to-face with tough questions. Whatever their political beliefs, Americans should hope and pray as I do that President Obama in these dark hours will find the strength and the courage to learn, to grow and to lead.