Last week, two articles covering Barack Obama appeared which were startling in both content and tone. The first was from The Economist, a magazine that has been relatively supportive of the White House in the past. It talked about the disturbing “weakness” the President showed in his recent tour of Asia. The other article was by New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd, an avowed Obama adherent. Dowd covered the recent sacking of White House Counsel Greg Craig, a former firm friend of the Clintons who became one of Obama’s earliest, most ardent and most effective supporters. Dowd’s conclusion about the episode: “Bill Clinton may not have cared any more about contributors than Obama does, but he was such a talented politician that he made them feel as though they were in ‘a warm bath,’ as one put it. Obama is more like a cold shower.”
And there are more doubts surfacing. Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan recently penned an article that was critical of the administration. No surprise there, but the names she cited who agreed with her assessment were from the Left. “No one loves Barack Obama,” she concluded. “Half the American people say they support him, and Democrats are still with him…but whatever is keeping them close, it doesn’t seem to be love.”
All of this is interesting: the criticisms about policy and, more tellingly, the criticisms about character. One of the fascinating things about Barack Obama during the campaign—one of the maddeningly unfair things, from his opponents’ point of view—was that he was immune to serious personality attacks. Pegging him as “palling around with terrorists” worked with a certain segment of the population, but those people were already marginalized and angry. To the broad swath of voters, Obama came off as what he was, and is: a decent, responsible man who cares about America. Maybe he was a little elitist and a little distant, but we tried chummy populism with the last guy, and that didn’t work so well. Now, a year in, people on both the Left and the Right are starting to get offended by his seeming disconnectedness. Obama hasn’t changed his personality (even if such a change were possible at 47 years of age); people have simply become more willing to see flaws.
And that’s where the policy part of the equation comes in. No one would much care if Obama was pleasant, snarling, or in between if he were getting the job done satisfactorily. But he isn’t. Both sides of the aisle are dissatisfied with his signature issue, health care reform, albeit for different reasons. Conservatives are aghast that, with a looming deficit and out-of-control health care system, we’re actually trying to insure more people. Liberals are surprised and disappointed that we’re not guaranteeing universal coverage and including a public option. And the President hasn’t sold the issue. He had the chance—he actually had multiple chances—over the past months, but he hasn’t given Americans a compelling reason to support his health care plan.
Then there are Afghanistan and Guantanamo, both important issues on which the administration took an initial stand and abandoned in the face of resistance (or simple recognition of reality, depending on which side you’re on); the Administration is now floating somewhere in the hateful policy limbo that repulses both the Left and the Right. It’s not as if the American people would begrudge their president taking time to come to an important decision; in fact, given the lessons from Iraq, they would most likely appreciate their commander-in-chief exercising a little caution. But they do resent actions without clear justifications. Why add 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, rather than either taking the commanding general’s advice (40,000 troops) or withdrawing altogether? Why order the closing of Guantanamo, then change your mind, then fire the one man who was staying faithful to your initial orders? (I’m referring here to Greg Craig, whose forced resignation was due in large part to his forceful push to actually shut down the prison.)
It’s a lot like the now-famous bows Obama made to the Saudi Arabian monarch and to the emperor of Japan. In both cases Obama broke precedent, leading to a lot of foaming-at-the-mouth from the Right, which is not too surprising. American conservatives have had a long and increasingly detrimental love affair with the idea of American exceptionalism; to them, America’s conception of its own greatness is a jewel to be zealously guarded rather than an impetus for, say, generosity or liberality. Based on this conception, the American President bowing to a foreign king represents the imminent fall of America and thus, the ensuing collapse of Western civilization. An overreaction? Clearly, but it was a predictable one, and the question still remains: why did the President break precedent in the first place? Americans don’t mind changing the way our country does business, but they want a reason behind the changes. They want clear pay-offs for an alteration in strategy. The President hasn’t given them reasons, and there seem to be few pay-offs in the offing. So the White House continues to lose support among the electorate and now, more ominously, the Washington establishment is starting to have doubts of its own.
Of course, none of this means the end for the Obama presidency. John F. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs his first year in office, Bill Clinton had a failed health care reform bill in his second, and both rebounded; Kennedy went on to face down the Soviets and Clinton won reelection. Besides, Obama’s missteps are a far cry from such catastrophic failures. Then again, maybe the President could use a serious mistake. Clear policy failures tend to spur rethinking and changes in strategy, both of which might rejuvenate a White House that seems to have lost momentum less than a year into its tenure.