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A Presidency on the Rocks

The firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal has many liberal pundits breathless. Granted, it’s been a long time since Obama made a decision quickly and effectively. There was disagreement over whether McChrystal had to go, but few quibble with bringing in the general who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq. Despite liberals’ delirium (See, he can get something right!), the incident actually highlights the degree to which Obama is no longer in command of events or his own political destiny. In a compelling column, A.B. Stoddard of the Hill writes:

Within the competing factions in burgeoning disagreement over Afghan war policy in his administration, Obama has tried taking shelter in the middle, his habitual no man’s land where he is neither wartime commander nor consensus builder. In deciding to relieve McChrystal, Obama cannot be accused of weakness, but the scandal weakened him instantly and immeasurably and made him appear even more alone.

In a foundering war our allies have lost patience with, and a fragile economic recovery that has failed to make a dent in joblessness, Obama struggles to lead at home and abroad. Seventeen months into office, Obama is increasingly isolated — from his party, from American voters and from the world. Though he was sworn in amid great expectations to transcend partisan, racial, cultural and economic divisions, the country is more polarized than ever and Washington is even more a target for voter anger than it was under President Bush.

Obama has gone from a political colossus to a political leper. (“Obama is so politically toxic in battlegrounds he can’t campaign for most Democratic candidates and his relationships with Democrats outside his intimate circle of mostly Chicagoan advisers fall somewhere between faint and frosty.”) His fondness for big government and for phony budget calculations has run up against increasingly skeptic voters and nervous Democrats. As Stoddard notes:

Democrats have joined Republicans with a newfound distaste for deficit spending. So spooked are Democrats from every region of the country, mostly vulnerable members elected in 2006 and 2008, they are turning their backs on unpaid emergency spending to extend COBRA health benefits for the unemployed and continued unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states that can’t be offset with other spending cuts. Jobs bills are stalling, and a debate about the extension of Bush tax cuts — including those promised to the middle class by then-candidate Obama in his presidential campaign — it’s all on the table in the new age of fiscal rectitude.

None of this should be that surprising. Americans elected an ideologically extreme candidate with no executive experience and little warmth. He identifies with European elites and American academics, not so much with ordinary Americans. He has even managed to annoy his mainstream fan club. It’s no wonder that his administration is on the rocks.

Obama has two and a half years in his term to turn things around. The irony here is that he came into office wanting to change us. Now, to save his presidency, he will have to change policies, staff, and himself. I frankly don’t think he has it in him. But we’ll find out.