Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Incredible Deflation of Barack Obama

By Mortimer B. Zuckerman
Posted January 21, 2010

The air is seeping out of the Obama balloon. He has fallen to below 50 percent in the poll approval ratings, a decline punctuated by his party's shocking loss in the Massachusetts special election.


Barack Obama was undoubtedly sincere in what he promised, even if his promises were within the normal range of political exaggeration. The first trouble is that his gift for inspiration aroused expectations, stoked to unprecedented heights by his own staff, that he would solve the climate crisis on Monday, the jobs crisis on Tuesday, the financial crisis on Wednesday, the education crisis on Thursday, Afghanistan on Friday, Iraq on Saturday, and rest on Sunday. His oratorical skills were highlighted by the contrast with President Bush, who mangled words so much that his incoherence became, as Tina Brown wrote, "a metaphor for incompetence." Expectations were spurred, too, by Obama's recognition that Americans yearned for a new kind of politics, a rejection, as he put it, of "politics as usual."

Perhaps the inevitable outcome was disappointment—and on this Obama has not disappointed. Alas, he has accelerated the deflation of hope with his extraordinary volume of public appearances. In his first six months, he gave three times as many interviews as George W. Bush, four times as many prime-time news conferences as Bill Clinton, and more interviews than both combined: 93 for Obama and 61 for his two immediate predecessors. He appeared on five Sunday talk shows on the same morning, followed the next day by David Letterman, the first-ever presidential appearance on a nighttime comedy show. In another week, he squeezed in addresses to the U.S. Climate Change Summit, the U.N. General Assembly, the U.N. Security Council, and a variety of press conferences.

His promiscuity on TV has made him seem as if he is still a candidate instead of president and commander in chief. He—and his advisers—have failed to appreciate that national TV speeches are best reserved for those moments when the country faces a major crisis or a war. Now he faces the iron law of diminishing novelty.

Despite this apparent accessibility, Obama's reliance on a teleprompter for flawless delivery made for boring and unemotional TV, compounding his cerebral and unemotional style. He has seemed not close but distant, not engaged but detached. Is it any wonder that the mystique of his presidency has eroded so that fewer people have listened to each successive foray? The columnist Richard Cohen wryly observed that he won the Pulitzer Prize for being the only syndicated columnist who did not have an exclusive interview with the president.

Poor results. But Obama's problems are more than a question of style. There is doubt aroused on substance. He sets deadlines and then lets too many pass. He announces a strategic review of Afghanistan, describing it as "a war of necessity," only to become less sure to the point that he didn't even seem committed to the policy that he finally announced. As for changing politics in Washington, he assigned the drafting of central legislative programs not to cabinet departments or White House staff but to the Democratic congressional leadership of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the very people so mistrusted by the public. Who could be surprised that the critical bills—the stimulus program and healthcare—degenerated under a welter of pork and earmarks that had so outraged the American public in the past?

Pelosi benefited from $54 million to relocate a Bay Area wine train, not to speak of a secret deal with the drug industry lobby to preclude negotiations on Medicaid drug prices and exclude drug imports from Canada, concessions that had previously been strongly rejected by Obama. Reid favored the gambling industry by arranging an earmark for a Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas high-speed monorail, even though it won't be built for years. Some components of the stimulus did help soften the recession, yet only roughly a third of the $787 billion stimulus has been spent, and too much was spent on programs supported by liberal Democrats, which explains why so much of the stimulus money went toward education, health, energy conservation, and other activities, mostly worthy but not geared to achieving recovery and getting people back to work.

Taxpayers have thus come to see politics as usual masquerading as economic recovery. Indeed, both the stimulus and healthcare plans were voted on so quickly that the lawmakers had no time to read the bills. In both cases, the White House created the impression it was interested in passing anything, no matter how ineffectual. This was epitomized by Obama's chief of staff essentially asserting that a healthcare bill would be passed even if all it consisted of was two Band-Aids and an aspirin.

Most critically, Obama misjudged the locus of the country's anxiety: the economy. Instead of concentrating on jobs, jobs, jobs, he made the decision to "boil the ocean" and go for everything, from comprehensive health reform to global warming to a world without nuclear weapons ... and the beat goes on.

This was more than the Congress could absorb and more than the country could understand. Obama, the theoretician in a hurry, made no allowance for the normal resistance to dramatic change and the public's distaste for big government, big spending, and big deficits. He didn't seem to realize that Americans understand in the most personal terms that excessive debt has real consequences, given how many have mortgages that exceed the value of a home and credit lines that are too much to carry. Yet this was what the president seemed to be getting us into. Over 60 percent of the country believes that government spending is excessive; Obama's lowest approval ratings come from his mishandling of the present and future deficits.

Delayed stimulus. It is not as if the limited stimulus program has done the job either, since unemployment rates soared over 10 percent (compared with the 8 percent ceiling that was promised). Shelby Steele asked a good question in the Wall Street Journal: "Where is the economic logic behind a stimu­lus package that doesn't fully click in for a number of years?" Yes, we might have just escaped a depression, but as the Econo­mist magazine observes, voters will not thank the president for averting a depression that did not come but are "more likely to blame him for the recession that did." On top of all this, and not all Obama's fault, a financial crisis usually produces weak recoveries in jobs, so a good number of Americans are likely to remain furious at the spectacle of the financial world doing well while so many ordinary folks lose their jobs and their savings. This anger will not subside while households see net worth slump to where it was 20 years ago and debt reach close to record highs at about 130 percent of disposable income, and while the residential real estate crisis continues unabated and the official jobless rate doesn't come close to reflecting the true extent of unemployment and ... and ... and ....

The White House might have at least demonstrated that it cares about fiscal restraint and independence from the leadership in Congress, but consistently Obama has failed to veto spending while centralizing power. A majority of Americans think it a mistake at this time of economic distress to embark on a costly healthcare program. As it was, the program's apparently stalled trip through Congress turned out to be another fiasco of political corruption, with millions of dollars allocated to buy votes, such as those of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. Anger with that process and the bill it produced helped fuel the stunning election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

The result is a widespread concern that progressive taxation to pay for the "nanny state" will snuff out future opportunities that Americans believe they deserve for themselves and their children. Obama misjudged the public's appetite for taxpayer-funded solutions; most people believe all the government does is waste money. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only 23 percent said they "trusted the government just about always or most of the time"—the smallest proportion in 12 years, and the all-important independent swing voters who decide elections now favor Republicans by 52 percent, up from 30 percent.

Unfortunately, there is not much solace in international affairs either, where, again, expectations were so pumped up. America's image is better, no doubt, but uncertainty and procrastination prevail. One major international political leader recently put it well: "Not only does the leadership of this region not think that Obama is strong enough to confront his enemies; they aren't sure he is strong enough to support his friends."
The administration seems "hopelessly naive," according to one Arab foreign minister, and unable to face the full truth about Islamic terrorism. The public frustration over the administration's mismanagement of the latest jihadist attempt to blow up a plane with all its innocent travelers (on Christmas Day) was captured in the New York Daily News headline "Mr. President, it's time to get a grip!"

The consequence is that there isn't a single critical problem on which the president has a positive public rating. Only a minority of Americans now believe the president will make the right decisions for the country. Nor can he any longer take refuge in the rejoinder that "we inherited a terrible situation." Or blame it on fat-cat bankers and insurance companies. Blaming others, including Bush, for the country's predicament is less and less persuasive. "At some point you own your presidency," wrote Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. "At some point the American people tell you it's yours."

More worrying for the administration is that while Obama gets the approval of 76 percent of non-whites, his approval among whites is down to 41 percent, according to Gallup. This is a huge change that literally puts the Democratic control of Congress at risk. The Republicans have hardly been stellar either, but there is now a renewed openness in the country to hear what they have to say. Obama's political realignment of America is over. We no longer believe that he will "change the world" and "transform the country."

This brings to mind why an adviser to President Roosevelt in the 1930s, Bernard Baruch, told electors to vote for the person who promised them less. In this way, he said, "you would be less disappointed." There is still time for Obama to change and turn things around. But the first year is the critical year, one in which the public defines the president, and it has to be said that broad swaths of the country are deeply disappointed.

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