Commentary Magazine


Losing the Times

The New York Times carries a good deal more weight in Obamaland than it did within the Bush Administration. (It was a Times editorial that convinced Senator Daschle to withdraw his nomination as HHS Secretary, for example.) And so, as pointed out, yesterday could not have been a good day for President Obama and his aides, particularly given the fawning coverage and commentary reserved for Obama in the past.

From columnist Frank Rich, we read this:

A charming visit with Jay Leno won’t fix it. A 90 percent tax on bankers’ bonuses won’t fix it. Firing Timothy Geithner won’t fix it. Unless and until Barack Obama addresses the full depth of Americans’ anger with his full arsenal of policy smarts and political gifts, his presidency and, worse, our economy will be paralyzed. It would be foolish to dismiss as hyperbole the stark warning delivered … in a letter to the editor published by The Times last week: “President Obama may not realize it yet, but his Katrina moment has arrived.”

From Maureen Dowd, this:

The tableau of Michelle Obama hoisting a pitchfork on Friday with her sinewy arms and warning that the commander in chief would be commandeered into yard work left me wondering if the wrong Obama is in the Oval.

From Tom Friedman, this:

I ran into an Indian businessman friend last week and he said something to me that really struck a chord: “This is the first time I’ve ever visited the United States when I feel like you’re acting like an immature democracy.” You know what he meant: We Americans are in a once-a-century financial crisis, and yet we’ve actually descended into politics worse than usual. There don’t seem to be any adults at the top — nobody acting larger than the moment, nobody being impelled by anything deeper than the last news cycle.

From the Times lead editorial, this:

But we did not expect that Mr. Obama, who addressed these issues [terrorism, prisoners, the rule of law and government secrecy] with such clarity during his campaign, would be sending such confused and mixed signals from the White House. Some of what the public has heard from the Obama administration on issues like state secrets and detainees sounds a bit too close for comfort to the Bush team’s benighted ideas.

And today, Paul Krugman weighs in with this:

Mr. Obama has apparently settled on a financial plan that, in essence, assumes that banks are fundamentally sound and that bankers know what they’re doing. It’s as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street. And by the time Mr. Obama realizes that he needs to change course, his political capital may be gone.

These judgments are significant because they are coming from people who were once strong, even worshipful, Obama supporters. If this is how America’s new president is viewed in those precincts, it’s fair to say that Obama has a real and growing problem on his hands.

I have some sympathy for Team Obama. As many of us have been saying for a while now, governing is a lot harder than campaigning. I would hold off on making definitive judgments about Obama (or anyone else) just two months into an administration.

At the same time, there is no question that Obama’s first eight weeks in office have been rocky, and sometimes in politics a series of missteps metastasize into a durable impression. President Obama and his Administration are edging dangerously close to that point at neck-breaking speed. It’s never a good sign when your core supporters in the commentariet are beginning to turn on you: it influences the rest of the coverage, including television coverage, and alters the public’s perception over time.

The most important thing to remember is that events are what matter — and here, too, Obama can take little comfort so far. His priorities seem out of touch with the moment. He and his Treasury Secretary/economic team appear over-matched by events. At times they have even appeared clueless. Obama has deferred to Congressional Democrats to an astonishing degree, and we are seeing early signs of skittishness and concern from them about the President’s agenda. In a terribly damaging blow, the Congressional Budget Office’s report on Friday is projecting that Obama’s budget will produce annual deficits that would force the nation to borrow nearly $9.3 trillion over the next decade — $2.3 trillion more than what the President predicted when he unveiled his budget a few weeks ago. Regimes like Iran are mocking Obama’s efforts at outreach. Obama jettisoned almost immediately any serious effort to make good on his promises to transcend ideology and usher in an era of bipartisanship, ethics reform, the end of earmarks, and a “new politics” characterized by seriousness rather than pettiness, and candor rather than spin.

Right now things that were viewed as his strengths are beginning to transmute into weaknesses. He has unified the Republican Party in opposition to his radically liberal agenda. He’s losing the support of moderates. Various polls show the GOP drawing even with Democrats on the generic ballot. And Obama’s core supporters are either turning on him or beginning to hedge their bets. To think he’s only been President for just over two months. This can’t possibly be what he expected.

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