Sometimes in the life of a politician, a particular moment, word, or act defines them — and badly damages them. This much-viewed montage of comments by Barack Obama, repeatedly promising that he would allow C-SPAN to broadcast health-care negotiations, may well qualify. The reason is that it requires no commentary or interpretation by others; it is Barack Obama in his own words — words we now know to be false, cynical, and (quite literally) unbelievable. My hunch is that this episode will do considerable harm to Obama’s standing with the public, in part because it annihilates what had been at the core of the Obama campaign and the Obama appeal: the belief that he embodied a new, uplifting kind of politics; that transparency would be a watchword of his presidency; that he would “turn the page” on the practice of cynical politics. It is not simply that the negotiations will not appear on C-SPAN; it is that the process itself has been a model of payoffs and backroom deals, of dishonest arguments and false claims, of secrecy and cynicism.
It’s important to recall that Obama was not elected because of his record or personal achievements or the power of his ideas; by those standards, Obama offered very little. His appeal was to the aesthetic side of politics; his supporters spoke of him, and at times Obama spoke of himself, in almost mythical terms. He would not only govern well, they believed; he would transform the way politics was practiced. Mr. Obama was so good, so pure, so very nearly perfect that, as one liberal person I correspond with wrote me, our country did not deserve him. (I responded that I agreed our country did not deserve Obama as president — but for the opposite reasons.)
It turns out it was all an elaborate, beautifully packaged, wonderfully choreographed, and deeply dishonest game. Before this concern was inchoate; now, thanks to the “these negotiations will be on C-SPAN” video, it is metastasizing. (It cannot be reassuring to the White House that Jon Stewart ridiculed Obama last night on his program; see the link to “Stealth Care Reform” here.)
One of the most precious qualities a president is granted by citizenry is trust, the belief that even if one disagrees with the president, his word is good, his integrity intact. When that is squandered — whether in drips and drabs or because of a single incident — there is often no way to get it back. And then, almost in the blink of an eye, things change. Without him realizing it, Mr. Obama may be reaching that point with the American public. They don’t like to be played for fools.
The health-care debate has involved pushing through massive, extremely unpopular, and incoherent legislation. In the process Mr. Obama has shattered the most appealing aspects of his image. The direct and collateral political damage of this entire enterprise on Mr. Obama and his party will be almost incalculable.