Commentary Magazine


When Do They Tune Out?

There is a point in a presidency when the public simply has had enough and tunes out, unwilling to listen even when the president says sensible things or has a reasonable point to make in his own defense. For George W. Bush, it was Katrina. The question for Obama is how close to that point is he now, and will the next bad news week push him over the edge.

Toby Harnden writes:

Central to Obama’s appeal was his promise to be truly different. His failure to achieve that is now at the core of the deep disappointment Americans feel about him. At the press conference — the first full-scale affair he had deigned to give for 309 days — he appeared uncomfortable and petulant. … Obama engaged in the obligatory populist bashing of Big Oil and, of course, demonstrated the Obama administration’s version of Tourette’s Syndrome, blaming the previous administration for the situation when, by my reckoning, it’s a full 16 months since Bush left office.

So an oil spill that he had as much ability to prevent as George W. Bush did to stop Katrina from hitting shore has snared the president, who oversold himself and the power of government. But the Joe Sestak scandal may be worse. For one thing, it’s a White House–made mess, not a natural disaster. As Harden comments:

That was potentially illegal and for weeks the White House stonewalled. When, even more inconveniently, Sestak beat Specter, the trust-us-nothing-untoward-happened approach would no longer wash. But still Obama declined to answer the question on Thursday, fobbing the reporter — and America — off with the promise that “there will be an official response shortly on the Sestak issue.”

This did indeed come the following day — conveniently timed for that Friday afternoon news void before the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Lo and behold, it turns out that none other than former President Bill Clinton was asked by Obama’s chief of staff and Chicago enforcer Rahm Emanuel to offer Sestak a place on a presidential board.

Whether or not the law was broken, the cynicism of this is breathtaking. Obama offered a break from the Clinton-Bush past and an end to the shoddy backroom deals of Washington. So what does he do? He tries to deny Pennsylvania voters a chance to decide for themselves by using his former foe Clinton to offer a grubby inducement.

Obama has persistently ridiculed his opposition and shown contempt for and emotional distance from the voters. In a bind now — partly his fault, partly not — he encounters an opposition more than willing to turn the knife and a public that lacks much of an emotional connection with its president. In short, he’s infuriated and reinvigorated the opposition while frittering away his reserve of goodwill with the American people. Presidential credibility is a precious commodity, and Obama has little left. He is approaching the point — maybe he’s at it already — where the public disregards his utterances and begins to look around for a Congress to block his unpopular agenda and then a successor to, well, deliver “change.”

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