Charles Krauthammer has a compelling and alarming column today that documents the “supine posture” of President Obama’s diplomacy. A day earlier, my former colleague Karl Rove documented the missteps and unforced errors made by Team Obama on the domestic front. He concludes Obama & Company are “winging it.” Many people voted for Barack Obama aware of the fact that he had done nothing in his life that commended him to be President. What they were reassured by was Obama’s intelligence and temperament, his superbly run campaign, and the sense that he was something special, in terms of his capacity to usher in a “new” and “post-partisan” age in American politics. Some of us admired Obama’s obvious talents, even as we were concerned about his qualifications and his history (which was markedly left-leaning).
It was an open question, then, as to how he would perform. The early signs are not terribly reassuring, for all the reasons Krauthammer, Rove, and others have documented. The sense one gets is that Obama and his administration appear somewhat overmatched by events — not in every respect, of course, but in important ways for sure. And in some instances, they look like they are not yet ready for primetime. Some of this is understandable; every administration needs time to adjust to the staggering burdens of the Presidency. But some of what we have seen is surprising carelessness.
Charm can carry a president for a while; so can political skills and the public’s good will. But those sources of political sustenance have limits. What’s happening, I think, is that gravity is re-asserting itself. The days of Obama’s Magic Tour — of the soaring expectations, of people swooning at the sight of The One, of his audience being caught up in his vague promise of “change” — are ending; he and his team now have a country to govern and an untidy world to deal with. Nice speeches and glib answers aren’t sufficient. Insisting that he is the non-ideological Voice of Reason grows tiresome after a while. So while Obama’s approval ratings remain fairly strong, the ground beneath his feet is beginning to crack just a bit.
One cannot help but hope that this is a useful early lesson for Team Obama, which even by the standards of politics is a very self-satisfied lot. And while Obama has sent of jolt of energy through the GOP, which is in far stronger shape than anyone could have imagined just a month ago, I hope Obama and his administration can adjust in time. After all, the fate of our country is now tied in large measure to his actions. It’s a bad thing to have as our commander-in-chief a person with, in Krauthammer’s vivid phrase, a “kick me” sign on his back.
The first month has been ragged, and some disturbing signs have arisen. It’s still very early — Obama has yet to complete his first full month in office, after all — and he may get his sea legs soon. He remains a formidable political figure. And sending 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, while done in a somewhat haphazard way, was reassuring. But one thing is for sure: the adjustment has been harder than he and his team envisioned, and the results are underwhelming. The problems are more complicated than they said. It seems as if President Obama is spending half his time trying to lower the expectations of what he can achieve.
Welcome to life in the Oval Office.