What is wrong with Barack Obama? He has lost his magic; he finds himself in a free fall. If he doesn’t succeed in a job miracle, he will soon be the former president and go down in history as a phony.
Poor Obama. “Out! Out! Out!” they would yell at him, friends as well as enemies. His opponents want him out of the White House no later than the presidential election in November 2012. His friends want him out of Washington, the politically contaminated city, immediately, so that he is rid of the smell of party squabbling and can improve his chances for reelection. So for starters, Barack Obama will travel through the country into the Midwest. After this devastating week, he’ll breathe in closer proximity to the people, show his approachability, roll up his sleeves a little and travel by bus. Above all, he’ll do one thing: try to save his battered presidency.
The Past Week was Disastrous
Because, make no mistake, the ex-messiah Obama finds himself in a free fall. He lost his messianic magic a long time ago and has used up all his credit with voters. This past week was disastrous. First the Tea Party hounded him into a bad compromise on the debt battle. At the same time, the unemployment rate (of 9.1 percent) and meager growth prospects nurtured fear of a renewed recession. Then came the slap in the face from S&P, and 30 U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan in one fell swoop on Saturday, more than ever before on this mission. Obama’s America seems to be socially divided, politically torn, economically at the abyss and militarily leached. “Yes, we can.” Anything but. Obama is now recording the worst poll ratings of his term in office.
And who is to blame for this misery? The Tea Party freaks? The legacy of the financial crisis? Certainly, all play a little part. Above all, however, it is the president himself. There is a jarring dissonance between Obama’s promises and reality, wrote liberal columnist, Maureen Dowd, of the New York Times. And she’s right. The big reconciliation? Failed. Health reform, the megaproject of Obama’s first year in office? Chopped beyond recognition. Guantanamo? Still open. And economic policy? For too long, Obama neglected being concerned about the topics that move Americans the most: the job market, growth. He didn’t recognize that Clinton’s wisdom pertains now more than ever: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
He Appeared to be a Spectator
Already in the winter of the past year, Obama extended tax cuts from the Bush era under massive pressure from the now Republican House of Representatives. And Obama also lacked leadership qualities in the debate over America’s immense mountain of debt. He let the debate drift until Republicans were in a position to blackmail him because of the threat of bankruptcy. The Democratic bosses in Congress then conducted negotiations, not Obama. In short television appearances, Obama appeared clouded and ineffective in fighting the non-partisanship, instead of energetically fighting for his policy. He appeared to be a spectator. As punishment, the austerity constrains his ability to maneuver. Pushing investment programs is almost impossible. In the face of this, the S&P appears to be the nail in the coffin for the president’s economic failure.
Certainly, Obama was more successful in foreign policy. There was the Prague speech on disarmament and the Cairo speech on dialogue with the Muslim world. He was even decorated with the Nobel Peace Prize. He phased down U.S. involvement in Iraq and implemented a plan for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. He defended the Libya deployment against harsh domestic criticism — as well as his approach that America doesn’t need to always be front and center. Obama, as it goes, favors leading from the second row, “leading from behind.”
Some construe this as a weakness. However on May 1, Obama achieved his greatest success: killing Osama bin Laden, America’s public enemy No. 1. The gentle Obama suddenly appeared as Obama the decisive hunter. He was successful where the warrior George W. Bush had had no luck. What a victory! What pictures! The New Yorker recently described the heroic tale of this mission in detail just as much for the White House’s purposes as for the Hollywood filming of the Osama mission. Politically fitting, the film should be in theaters in October 2012, just a few weeks before the presidential election. But even Hollywood will not be able to save Obama from defeat. Because it has long been clear that the 2012 election will not be decided by Nobel prizes or heroic tales, but rather by unemployment rates and growth rates. “As worrisome as the issues of debt and deficits may be,” said Obama in his speech on Monday, “the most immediate concern of most Americans, and of concern to the marketplace as well, is the issue of jobs and the slow pace of recovery.”
Will Obama go Down in History as a Phony?
There are now a few more or less disillusioned and disappointed Obamalogues, who did get to the bottom of why the one-time messiah has fallen to such an extent. He is simply too soft, some think, he did not recognize that politics is much harder than warm words. He is too aloof and professorial, others suggest. Obama has believed too long in the idea that political reason will come out on top in a civil-republican deliberation, philosophizes Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast. Virginia Postrel from Bloomberg is harsher: The error always consisted of mistaking Obama’s glamour for charisma. The glamour has now faded; he never had charismatic capability. Meanwhile, in the New York Times, a psychologist charges the president with a lack of passion. At the moment, the president has few political friends: “He ends up being castigated by the right as a socialist,” writes Maureen Dowd,” by the left as a conservative, and by the middle as wobbly.” That reads as if the worn out ex-messiah needs to retrain himself. Yet more: if it goes badly for Obama, he will go down in the history of the presidency as a phony, a phony with only one term of office.
Resurrection with a Savings Whip at his Back
The good news for the president is that it’s not over yet. November 2012 is a long way off. And a great deal leans in his favor. The Republican competition is weak, even if new, halfway fresh faces step into the limelight on the right with Michele Bachman and the arch-Christian Texan Gov. Rick Perry. Obama still has a chance to invent himself as the job president, especially to the middle class, even if he is under conceivably harder circumstances. His maneuvering room on budget policy is minimal; the Republicans are breathing down his back with a savings whip. And moreover, Obama is hard up for personnel. In the past weeks, almost all of his top economic advisers have resigned. The badly berated Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner only agreed to stay after some cajoling.
What Obama’s strategy looks like was already readable from his appearance on Monday morning. Namely, he vowed to want to save more. Simultaneously, he asked Congress to extend expiring unemployment payments and income tax cuts in order to shore up domestic consumption. At the same time, he pressed for further investments in construction. “Look here, I want to invest in your jobs if the Republicans would only let me,” is the message. As he has in the preceding weeks, Obama is trying to orchestrate the voice of reason. He says it is not a shortage of plans, but shortages of political will, that is the problem in Washington. And in that, a further reason for Obama’s stony path to resurrection was recognizable: The president wants to continue to be a figure that stands above the nasty pettiness of Washington. Obama, the most important Washington insider, wants to step up as an outsider again. Whether the strategy will catch on with voters is completely unknown. The only sure thing is this: On Monday, Wall Street experienced the worst day since the financial crisis of 2008. If Obama does not succeed in creating an about-face here, he’ll be out. Out of the White House and out of Washington. And not only for the short term.