What was President Obama thinking when he chose to give a harshly partisan speech yesterday afternoon in Washington while part of the city was still shut down as police sought to ascertain the whereabouts of the lone gunman who had earlier killed 12 people at the capital’s Navy Yard? Though he paid lip service to the tragedy, he quickly switched back to his prepared remarks in which he used the fifth anniversary of the start of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown to bash his Republican opponents. The confrontational tone of the speech would have been problematic on any day, especially for the man who likes to claim he’s the only adult in the room and is ready to compromise with his opponents. But in choosing to stick to his script rather than to understand that this wasn’t the moment to lash out, the president demonstrated more than just bad timing or an inability think on his feet.
In a second term that has been largely characterized by scandals, fiascos, and gridlock, yesterday was another low point. As he settles into what will be an unusually long lame-duck period, Obama is forcing even many of those who voted for him to understand just how dysfunctional this White House has become. After the spectacle of indecision and retreat that was his Syria policy in the last month, and a year in which he proved again that he hasn’t the leadership skills to broker a deal with anyone but his sycophants, all Obama has left for us is anger at his political foes and a reflexive need to blame them for all of the country’s woes and his own failures.
As bad as things seem, the president should still be counting his blessings. Though even much of the liberal mainstream media has awoken to the impotence of this president, most of their main organs are still determined to minimize his shortcomings. Imagine if it was George W. Bush who had given an all-out attack on Democrats while a disaster unfolded in the vicinity, as Obama did yesterday. Compare yesterday to W’s decision not to bolt immediately from the elementary school classroom where he was reading to children when he learned of the 9/11 attacks. Bush was endlessly mocked for lingering until he had finished reading to the kids before assuming command. But Obama’s determination to ignore the circumstances of the moment and stick to his obsessive kicking of the GOP was far worse. Had Bush behaved as Obama did the anger, opprobrium, and invective thrown in his direction from the nation’s leading editorial pages and the talking heads on every network but Fox would have been the story for days. But since this is the president that liberals are still straining to rationalize if not defend, most pundits simply ignored it.
But, as with Syria, we can’t blame this on difficult circumstances, incompetent staff, or second-term blues in the West Wing. The problem in this administration is the man at the top of the pyramid. Though blessed with a still largely adulatory press, a formidable political machine, great rhetorical skills, and a historic status as our first African-American president that serves as a lifetime political get-out-of-jail free card, Barack Obama can only dictate, not persuade. When confronted with the fact that many Americans disagree with his ideological agenda, his only response is the same today as it was the day he arrived in the White House: to demonize his opponents and to attempt to beat them into submission.
All second terms are difficult, but this one is going to be worse than most because at its heart this presidency runs on vitriol rather than vision. If we are to believe spokesman Jay Carney, it never occurred to anyone to postpone the anti-Republican rant. But most of all it never crossed Obama’s mind that there was anything more important than venting his anger at Republicans and taking yet another opportunity to pass the buck onto the opposition for his own failures. If partisanship is all the president has to offer, it is because after repeatedly demonstrating his incompetence and with nothing to fall back upon but the same stale liberal patent nostrums, partisanship is all he has left in his bag of tricks.
Generous critics will put down yesterday’s speech as a moment of tone deafness. A media that is always willing to give this president the benefit of the doubt that they never extended to his predecessor will quickly move on. But the image of the president raging at his opponents should linger as an apt symbol of this presidency. Barack Obama is still the most powerful person in the world, but he is trapped by his own shortcomings into a posture in which all he can do is stumble from one crisis to another while blaming it all on others. How sad for the country. How pathetic for a man who was once thought to be a symbol of hope.