Something has changed over the course of the last five weeks. Barack Obama, who seemed politically invincible to his supporters and many media commentators, now seems vulnerable. His approval ratings are dropping, public concern is rising, the debt is exploding, and the economy is, in many respects, worsening. This may simply be a bit of a rough patch he can ride through and overcome; or it may be the beginning of a longer slide. Time will tell. But Obama seems less politically formidable than he did. The main reason for this shift is that Obama’s signature initiative to date, his $787 billion stimulus package — the first major legislation of his presidency, quickly passed in order to both avert a catastrophe and jump-start the economy — has been a bust. “I think my initial measure of success is creating or saving four million jobs,” Obama said in February, when speaking about the goals of the stimulus package. Yet unemployment is significantly higher today than when Obama took office (9.5 percent v. 7.6 percent) and significantly higher than Obama and his Administration predicted (we were told to expect a high of 8 percent this year).
The money from the stimulus package is being spent far slower than we were told (less than 8 percent has gone out the door) — and the money that has been spent has been badly targeted. The legislation itself is bloated and filled with pork, exactly the kind of incoherent product one expects when a chief executive defers almost completely to committee chairmen. The stimulus package, which the Obama administration itself said should have made things better by now, has made things worse.
This would be damaging enough to any president, but it is particularly damaging to Obama. The reason is that this represents the first significant crack in his image. Obama, we were told, is the man with the golden touch, a person of Socratic wisdom and piercing intellect, the next Lincoln, a “sort of God.” He is, we were assured, a man in command of both facts and theories, at once competent and curious, urbane and sophisticated, free of dogma and drawn to experts, a public official who can see things few others do and solve problems in ways few others can. Obama’s administration, in turn, has been stocked with the best and the brightest, people of Ivy League educations and dazzling intellects. They would show us how to govern in ways that would inspire admiration, and even awe. So it is quite damaging that the one piece of legislation which, at this early date, we can make a preliminary judgment on — the stimulus package — has been an utter failure.
This is not, by itself, something from which Obama cannot recover. His job approval ratings, in the mid-50s, hardly qualify as a meltdown. He remains personally popular. And if the economy turns around, his stimulus mistake will be long forgotten.
But if, as I suspect, it is the first in a series of mistakes and failures, it will be seen as something else again: the first item out of the gate that Obama got his hands on and has full ownership of. And the result is an unholy mess, an enormously expensive bill that is causing us to lose rather than gain ground. This isn’t the way the Smart Set was supposed to handle things. And it is, perhaps, a foreshadowing of things to come — the first indication that Obama is not quite what he was advertised as.
Call it the beginning of the Great Awakening.