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A Failing Presidency and a Broken Party

This heartfelt comment and question, the first one President Obama received at a CNBC town hall gathering yesterday, may well become emblematic of the first half (at least) of the Obama presidency.

Ms. Velma Hart — middle class, a wife and the mother of two, a veteran, and an African-American Obama supporter — said this:

Quite frankly, I’m exhausted – I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I have been told that I voted for a man who said was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people and I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet. And I thought while it wouldn’t be in great measure, I’d feel it in some small measure.  I have two children in private school and the financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family. My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives, but, quite frankly, it’s starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we’re headed again, and, quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly. Is this my new reality?

This was a very bad moment for the Obama presidency because it was such an honest and representative one.

Velma Hart is obviously no Tea Party activist. The town hall audience was undoubtedly vetted by the White House in advance of the event. So for Ms. Hart to frame the question she did, in the manner she did, was fairly extraordinary. And she was not the only person who asked searching questions of Mr. Obama. A recent law school graduate, Ted Brassfield, told Mr. Obama that he had hoped to pursue a career in public service, like Obama himself, but said he could barely pay the interest on his student loans, let alone think of getting married or starting a family. “I was really inspired by you and your campaign and the message you brought,” Brassfield said, “and that inspiration is dying away. And I really want to know, is the American dream dead for me?”

Having worked in the White House, I can assure you this is not what Obama and his team of advisers wanted to hear — certainly not from a hand-picked audience at an economic town hall forum that is being broadcast on television six weeks before a crucial midterm election.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a contributor to CONTENTIONS wrote this cautionary note regarding the new president-elect:

Sooner than he might imagine, and certainly sooner than he might wish, the responsibility for how America is performing will fall to him and his Democratic colleagues in the House and the Senate. A year from now, it won’t be enough to blame the problems on others. He and other Democrats ran and won on the promise that they would turn things around, and do so quickly. Those promises can’t be reeled back. Obama in particular has set a very high bar. Indeed, the expectations for “change”–in policies, in performance, even in the way we conduct our politics–is as high as I can recall … For understandable reasons, many people are being swept up in this remarkable American moment. But reality will intrude soon enough, and Barack Obama will face the same standards that every other President has faced. Incantations of “hope” and “change” can work in a campaign. They are virtually useless when it comes to governing. Barack Obama is about to enter the crucible. We’ll see how he performs.

President Obama has, so far at least, performed rather dismally. He set super-human expectations for himself — including his pledge to slow the rise of the oceans and begin to heal the planet, his commitment to resist the temptation to “fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long,” and to “transform” America at what he called a “defining moment.”

In some respects, of course, President Obama has transformed America — but in ways many American find alarming. What we are seeing all across our land is an extraordinary, organic movement rising up against Obamaism. If you go to the heart of this effort, beyond even the policy differences themselves, what you will find is an effort to restore America. It is a direct, energetic, and sometimes rambunctious response to the president’s transformational project, to his effort to remake America in his own liberal image and conforming to his own liberal views and values.

As we saw yesterday, at the economic town hall meeting, the hope and promise of Obama has collided with, and is being shattered by, reality.

Barack Obama is, right now, the architect of a failing presidency and, soon, a broken party.



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