Politics & Media

Obama on the Ropes: Can He Still Be Brilliant?

The President isn’t facing mutiny from most of media, Congressional and academic acolytes after a rough two weeks, but he’s faced with an enormous political mess to clean up.

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Barack Obama often works, campaigns and governs at a frenetic pace, but his activity in the past 10 days is something to behold, as he’s all over the map, both literally and figuratively. He (and his advisers) failed to grasp the strength of Republican Scott Brown’s nationalized senate campaign in Massachusetts, and showing up in that state on behalf of Martha Coakley just two days before the election is undoubtedly a trip Obama now regrets. So, with his fellow Democrats in full-blown meltdown after Brown’s decisive victory on Jan. 19, Obama took to the road again, sending out mixed, if rhetorically potent, messages in Rust Belt locations devastated by the still-anemic economy.

At times, as in Elyria, Ohio, last Friday, he’d defend his sputtering health care bill, pledging its passage (“[S]o long as I have breath in me.”), even as polls show that Americans don’t rate that reform as a pressing issue and his Congressional allies have all but given up on the scurrilously pork-laden legislation. Then, in the following series of breaths, he railed against Wall Street and the bailed-out big banks, trying (and partially succeeding) to capitalize on the populist outrage against anyone in the financial sector who has the audacity to make a lot of money.

You’d have thought the President, just by looking at him on the tube, was the first cousin of a militant tea-bagger.

Yet while ultra-liberal senators Barbara Boxer and Russell Feingold made a splash by calling for the ouster of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke (a sudden development that, in the unlikely event it happens, threatens to reignite the financial panic from the fall of ’08) Obama and the White House voiced its strong support for the startled Bernanke. That would seem to put Obama in a contradictory position; on the one hand he’s pillorying the big bad banks—too big to fail but not too big to bop—for a quick snort of public approval; on the other, he’s sticking by Bernanke and, for now, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, since if he threw them under the bus it would be an admission he backed the wrong horses last year to prop up the economy.

It was especially comical to see the wealthy Boxer claim, “It is time for Main Street to have a champion at the Fed,” not acknowledging, naturally, that she faces an unexpectedly difficult reelection campaign in California this November for a seat she’s assumed was her birthright. Warren Buffett, the revered billionaire iconoclast, who’s no friend to the GOP, said on CNBC last week that if Bernanke gets iced, “Well, just tell me a day ahead of time, so I can sell some stocks.” Other investors were quicker to pull the trigger last week, sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average to its worst one-week lost in almost a year.

As written in this space not quite two months ago, Slate’s “Big Idea” thinker Jacob Weisberg jumped the gun on assessing Obama’s first year in office. Weisberg may have been the first to issue a report card on the President, but his conclusion that Obama’s initial 365 days at the White House would be remembered by historians as rivaling FDR’s certainly doesn’t look so smart today. One can be thankful for small favors: the Obama/FDR/JFK trilogy has all but disappeared from the mainstream media, as reporters, pundits and editorialists have moved on to the more current, and juicier, story of what even six months ago was inconceivable: the self-destruction of this political cycle’s Democratic Party. Granted, the landscape in Washington may reverse itself again in a short period of time, but for now all those Democrats who won elected office in ’06 and ’08 are scared stiff that after the midterms they’ll be in agreement with most Americans that the economy is by far the most pressing issue Obama must tackle.

It’s fascinating to read the reactions of the men and women in the media who just a year ago, besotted by Obama’s decisive victory, heralded a new dawn in the nation’s capital. There are three different camps right now and they bear little resemblance.
The nastiest is typified by Harper’s editor, Roger D. Hodge, whose February “Notebook” essay, “The mendacity of hope,” was a blistering attack on Obama. While Hodge allows that Obama is preferable to George W. Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin and Joseph Stalin (Harper’s still has an online firewall, but the Stalin crack is indicative of his tone), he writes that, “[W]e have not been delivered … We can all taste the bitterness now.” Concentrating on Obama’s foreign policy, especially the escalation in Afghanistan and his embrace of Bush’s “unconstitutional war powers,” Hodge concludes that the President was a 2008 diversion, a mountain of cotton candy for a country disillusioned with the Republican party. His apostasy reaches such a pitch that he calls Obama a “common politician,” who’d never jeopardize an election. Near the essay’s conclusion, Hodge goes for glass jaw: “Having embraced and professionalized the powers of force and fraud previously associated with the likes of John Yoo and Dick Cheney, Obama has embarked on a course of war [Afghanistan] that will certainly invite further abuses of power.”

The second faction, represented by The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, is sticking by Obama no matter what; the I’m A Lover, Not a Fighter (of Democrats) sort of thinking. In a Jan. 20 blog entry, the day after Brown’s victory, Hertzberg blames the Senate’s filibuster rule for Obama’s troubles, saying that without the admittedly arcane rule in that body, the President by now would’ve passed health care, a global warming bill, strict financial regulation and a bigger stimulus package. Essentially, Hertzberg is of the Blame Bush wing of the liberal tent, a notion that’s getting mustier with each passing day.

In addition, ignoring the plain fact that droves of Independent voters were responsible for GOP wins in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, Hertzberg claims that Obama’s been damaged by “an essentially nihilistic opposition party dominated by a pro-torture, anti-intellectual, anti-public-spirited, xeonophobic ‘conservative’ movement; and a rightist propaganda apparatus owned by nominally respectable media corporations and financed by nominally respectable advertisers.”

Far out, man: a generation ago I’d be asking for a hit of whatever’s causing you these hallucinations. Brown received 52 percent of the vote in Massachusetts on Jan. 19: is Hertzberg saying these people are nihilists? In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC New poll showed that a full 72 percent of Americans identify themselves as either “moderate” or “conservative.” As for his obvious dig at Fox News, which is of course a conservative television station (just as The New York Times is a liberal newspaper), it’s quite a leap to call Fox’s advertisers “nominally respectable.” Last time I checked, Fox had the same rotating commercials as its competitors: spots for prescription drugs, cars, beer, junk food and financial institutions.

The last group is the most pragmatic, those who understand something is seriously amiss in Obama’s White House and if the President and his team fails to draw up a new game plan, all those “Yes, We Can” posters and bumper stickers will be seen as preposterous as Jerry Ford’s WIN buttons back in the mid-70s. Joe Klein’s cover story in this week’s Time best conveys the thinking of those who are rooting, even shilling, for Obama but are flabbergasted that he’s so politically tone-deaf. Klein’s a chameleon—his on-again, off-again relationship with Bill Clinton is a classic example of the bigfoot journalist/president dynamic—but he’s a Democratic chameleon. So while he too lists the number of rotten fish inheritances left by Bush for Obama to clean up, Klein is telling the President to knock off his alleged penchant for policy studies and start politicking in the old-fashioned way.

Klein’s conclusion, while attempting to be helpful, isn’t especially generous. He writes: “[Obama] will have to go to battle, shedding his preternatural calm at times, and fight to regain the public trust … He will have to understand that in the poisonous atmosphere of American politics, triumphs are no longer a realistic possibility; survival is as good as it gets.”

My own view is that if Obama can get it through his skull that the economy—not health care, not climate change, not “restoring” America’s image abroad (as if the Iranian tyrants, for example, can ever be mollified by a U.S. president)—needs to occupy 80 percent of his time, he’ll be fine politically. Unless Obama champions some really dumb ideas—wage and price controls, protectionism, massive tax hikes—he’ll eventually be the recipient of an upswing in the economy, and, as this historically cyclical improvement takes place, it’ll be on his watch and will reap the credit. In the meantime, he ought to offer real incentives for small business to hire more employees; encourage young men and women from countries like India, China, Taiwan and Japan to attend graduate school in the United States, perhaps with a financial carrot that requires them to stay at least 10 years here. And finally, Obama must resist the urge to continually alter his message while on “listening tours” across the country: No one will believe him if, on succeeding days and weeks, he dons the mask of Huey Long, LBJ, Paul Volcker, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan or, God help us, Jimmy Carter.

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