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The Once-Appealing Barack Obama

Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration. It has been, by almost any measure, a difficult and disappointing year for him and his party.

Mr. Obama now has the highest disapproval rating in Gallup’s history for a president entering his second year in office. According to a new Washington Post–ABC News poll, among independents, only 49 percent approve — the lowest of any of his recent predecessors at this point in their presidencies. (Obama has lost a stunning 18 points among independents in just a year’s time.) In November, Democrats suffered crushing defeats in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial campaigns — and if Republican Scott Brown prevails in his race against Martha Coakley in tomorrow’s Senate election in Massachusetts, it will rank among the most important non-presidential elections in our lifetime.

It has been a staggering collapse by a president who entered office with enormous support and an unprecedented amount of goodwill.

The reasons for this slide include unemployment rates that are much higher than the Obama administration predicted, job growth that never materialized despite the president’s promises, a record-setting spending binge, a massive and hugely unpopular health-care proposal, and an agenda that is far too liberal for most Americans.

But there is another, and I think quite important, explanation that was reinforced to me while reading John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book, Game Change, which is a fascinating (and very well-written) account of the 2008 presidential campaign.

One is reminded once again of how the core of Obama’s popularity was an appeal not to policy or to a governing agenda; instead it was an appeal to thematics and narrative. “Obama cast himself as a figure uncorrupted and unco-opted by evil Washington,” the authors write. He was the candidate who “promised to be a unifier and not a polarizer; someone nondogmatic and uncontaminated by the special-interest cesspool that Washington had become.” Obama’s appeal was romantic and aesthetic, built on the rhetoric of hope and change, on his “freshness and sense of promise.” A cult of personality built up around Obama — not because of what he had achieved but because of what he seemed to embody. (“Maybe one day he’ll do something to merit all this attention,” Michelle Obama dryly told a reporter.)

“We have something very special here,” Obama’s top political aide Axelrod is quoted as saying. “I feel like I’ve been handed a porcelain baby.” Axelrod tells Obama — dubbed by his aides as the “Black Jesus” — that voters were looking for “a president who can bring the country together, who can reach beyond partisanship, and who’ll be tough on special interests.”

That was what we were promised. What we got instead is a president who increased the divisions in our nation, the most partisan and polarizing figure in the history of polling, one who is dogmatic and has been as generous to special interests as any we have seen. The efforts to buy votes in pursuit of the Obama agenda has added sewage to the cesspool.

This would hurt any president under any circumstances; for Barack Obama, whose allure was based almost entirely on his ability to convince the public that he embodied a “new politics,” it has been doubly damaging. It was Hillary Clinton of all people who understood Obama best when she said during the campaign, “We have to make people understand that he’s not real.”

Not real indeed. Obama’s stirring call for Americans to reject the “politics of cynicism” was itself deeply cynical. Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. After all, Heilemann and Halperin write, Axelrod was “a master of the dark arts of negative campaigning.” The first major profile of him, more than 20 years ago, was titled, “Hatchet Man: The Rise of David Axelrod.”

Obama and Axelrod might have been able to get away with this if Obama’s presidency had been viewed as successful and skilled. But it’s not. And when combined with the growing realization that Obama is not up to the task of governing, that he is pursuing policies that exacerbate our problems and takes us down a wrong and even perilous path, it is poison. The toxicity is such that what was once unthinkable now seems more likely than not: Democrats losing the Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for almost half a century. And even if they don’t, 2010 is shaping up to be a perfectly awful year for Democrats. It’s a safe bet that in response they and their allies will lash out in rage, angry at the perceived injustice of it all, furious at the fate that has befallen them. They will blame Obama’s predecessor, Republicans in Congress, the conservative movement, angry white males, Fox News, Sarah Palin’s tweets, and the wrong alignment of the stars. It won’t work.

Having created a myth, they must now live with its unmasking.


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