Commentary Magazine


Power Dirge

Passage of the Democrats’ health-care bill back in March was so historic, we were told, it not only established President Obama as a superstar against the backdrop of our political past; it would also secure his future standing in the pantheon of great American leaders. “Obama’s health care win ensures his legacy,” blared the McClatchy news service  headline.

This achievement was no end in itself. It heralded an Obama “power surge” of global reach. “In Washington, for the first time in his presidency, Obama is feared,” wrote the Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart. “Suddenly, Democrats are not so terrified about the midterm elections. …The Russians have backed down and signed an arms-control pact that doesn’t scrap missile defense in Eastern Europe.”

Pffh. Slaying the Russian bear with insurance regulation was just a warm-up. “Mr. Obama could retire into the history books, many presidential scholars say, on the health-care achievement alone,” wrote Helene Cooper in the New York Times. “But there is a swagger emanating from the White House that suggests he may now have acquired a liking for the benefits of sticking his neck out to lead.” Also in the Times, Tom Friedman assured us that health care’s passage made Obama a more formidable international player. “You don’t have to be Machiavelli to believe that the leaders of Iran and Venezuela shared the barely disguised Republican hope that health care would fail and, therefore, Mr. Obama’s whole political agenda would be stalled and, therefore, his presidency enfeebled,” he wrote.

Obama was on course to take out the Republicans, Russians, Iranians, Venezuelans, Martians, Aztecs, and Incas and still make tee time at Pebble Beach.

Too bad the power surge died before the spring. “Americans are more pessimistic about the state of the country and less confident in President Barack Obama’s leadership than at any point since Mr. Obama entered the White House,” runs an extraordinary lede in today’s Wall Street Journal. A new poll shows that the country is losing faith in the abilities of the world historic president who just three months ago passed historic legislation. That’s not nearly all. The White House is losing its grip on the military, getting smacked down by the judiciary on its drilling ban, and going into battle with about 15 states over health care. Oh, and the Russians ate us for breakfast on that arms treaty, the Iranians had us for lunch on UN sanctions, and the Venezuelans are seizing our oil rigs for dinner. Finally, pace Beinart, Democrats are “terrified about the midterm elections.”

How could this be? Leadership through Nancy Pelosi’s prop gavel and the imposition of mystery legislation doesn’t confer actual power? Go figure.

The big historic health-care victory was nothing more than a procedural high-wire act. Kind of like getting your package to FedEx at 7:55 p.m. on a rainy Friday. Never mind that the package is empty or, worse, that its contents are dangerous. ObamaCare’s popularity sinks with each day’s new frightening analysis.

What people do want are jobs. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that Americans chose “job creation and economic growth” as their top-priority issue for the federal government to address. “The Gulf Coast oil spill and energy” was second. Health care came in at a distant number six, beating last place “social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.”

Like Tom Friedman says, you don’t have to be Machiavelli to see that Obama isn’t competently addressing the most important issues; you just have to be American. In fact, you don’t have to be Machiavelli at all. You just have to be effective. People instruct the president to get mad or get compassionate. But he only needs to get things done. All the “impressive leadership” stuff comes after a leader actually accomplishes something. For now, the new poll does at least partially vindicate Peter Beinart: people are certainly afraid of Barack Obama.

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