From a vantage point thousands of miles outside the Beltway and with a less exacting focus on political events (as most Americans observe the news) over the last week, I cannot help but agree with pollster/analyst Charlie Cook (no partisan conservative), who noted that “the situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and Congressional Democrats.” It is not simply the continued slide in the president’s poll numbers. It is not only that his standing among independents has collapsed. And it is not just the obvious disarray among Democrats or the fury building on the Left over his handling of health care.
What has coalesced, it seems, over the past week is the perception that Obama is angry, panicky, and without a game plan, and that his critics no longer cower. In short, out there something has changed: opposition and criticism of the president is everywhere—in mainstream media, in casual conversation, and in local press. The assumption that Obama knows best has been shattered, and the perception sinking in among the pundit class and ordinary voters (some of whom were quite favorably disposed to him before the health-care debate) is that the president is out of touch and just plain wrong when it comes to his desire to reinvent health care for 300 million Americans. In sum, it’s become “in” to criticize, quite openly and vehemently, Obama on his signature initiative.
It remains to be seen whether this is a Katrina-like event—a tipping point after which the public simply tunes out their president. Recent history is filled with examples of course corrections and presidents who regained their effectiveness and political domination after a serious legislative setback. Bill Clinton comes to mind. But given this president’s extraordinarily high self-regard, it remains an open question whether Obama is capable of—what’s the phrase?—self-reflection. Is he able to see that he’s lost the respect and the trust of the public and that it may be time to rethink not just the public option but the entire conception of health care as well?
Martha’s Vineyard isn’t exactly a prime spot to recover perspective, but maybe the time off will be put to good use. And if that doesn’t do the trick, he might try vacationing around the country, listening to tourists and reading local newspapers. That’d be a wake-up call, I can attest.