In a “news analysis” in today’s New York Times, Helene Cooper, the paper’s White House correspondent, let drop a phrase we’re going to be hearing a lot in the next 17 months: “one term presidency.” Playing off of President Obama’s vainglorious boast of a year ago that he would rather be a good one-term president than a mediocre two-term chief executive, Cooper asks whether he really meant it.
At this point, the question is irrelevant. The president has taken no heroic yet unpopular stands that will be vindicated by history. The reason why Obama’s chances for a second term are rapidly vanishing is that even many of his former admirers are coming to grips with the fact he wasn’t ready for the job. And with the economy sinking on his watch, even his cheerleaders at the Times are conceding there is little, if anything, he can do to change things. As the president demonstrated in his speech on Monday about the downgrading of the national credit rating, he is out of ideas and has nothing to offer but more of the same partisan wrangling he claims to wants to rise above. Though the outcome of the 2012 election will depend in large measure on the abilities and electability of his Republican opponent, that just means it will be the GOP’s race to lose.
Obama’s problem right now is not, as liberals would have it, that he compromises too much. Nor is he a victim of circumstances or the devilish machinations of the Tea Party activists Democrats nonsensically believe are terrorists seeking to wreck the economy. His dilemma is he never saw coming the double-dip recession that is sinking his presidency.
Obama came into office thinking all of the country’s problems, both domestic and foreign, were the fault of his predecessor, a myth he still clings to. Having been handed the reins of power along with comfortable Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, he had two years to do as he pleased. That’s exactly what he did as he rammed through a trillion dollar stimulus and a health care bill that vastly expanded federal entitlement spending. These measures were unpopular and cost him his majority in the House of Representatives. But worse than that, they were a failure, and burdened by his ideology-based inability to embrace policies that will promote growth, he has led the country to ruin.
If Obama appears clueless today it is because he has already played every card in his hand during the first half of his one term. All that is left to him now is the last resort of every political failure: to blackguard his opponents and hope that demonizing them, as he hopes to do with the populist Tea Party movement, or to incite prejudice against them, as he plans to do with Mitt Romney should he be the GOP nominee, will ensure his re-election. The trouble with this strategy is it is an attempt to divert the public’s attention from the one thing they can never be distracted from: an economic collapse he has helped bring about.