Commentary Magazine


The Obama Backfire

Public opinion polls show Republicans are paying a higher price for the government shutdown than is the president. But Mr. Obama–whose approval rating has dropped to 37 percent in the most recent Associate Press-GfK Survey–is making some damaging errors that are haunting him as well.

There are a couple in particular that are worth highlighting. The first is his decision to elevate to an Inviolate Principle his insistence that he will not, under any circumstances, negotiate with Republicans over the government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling. Dealing with Iran and Russia is one thing; dealing with the evil John Boehner is entirely another.

Two problems: This no-negotiating position is at odds with the record of past presidents; and his insistence that not raising the debt ceiling can only be driven by nihilistic impulses is at odds with Obama himself, who as a U.S. senator voted against raising the debt ceiling. Mr. Obama has simply decided that he wants what he wants when he wants it, and that’s that. My way or the highway.

The vulnerability of this mindset is that the president appears (because he is) obstinate, intransigent, and unyielding. He seems to believe that his uncompromising stance will be viewed by the public as a virtue. In fact, he’s very much on the wrong side of the vast majority of Americans who want the parties involved–and especially the president–to reach a compromise in order to end this governing fiasco. It doesn’t help matters that Mr. Obama, when he gets in a jam, often seems unable to contain his petulance. He seems to revel in demonstrating mocking disdain of Congress. His small-mindedness is radiating in every direction–and as a result, the president is shrinking before our eyes.

The other mistake by Mr. Obama is his transparent effort to inflict maximum pain on Americans in the hope that he can convince the public that the GOP is the offending party. Just one example: The effort to erect barricades to keep wheelchair-bound World War II veterans away from the World War II Memorial–an open-air public monument that has always been open 24 hours a day–was vindictive and mean. For the Obama administration to pull this kind of a stunt–which is so transparently partisan, unnecessary, ungenerous, and unappreciative of our veterans–surprises me a bit. Not because I didn’t think Mr. Obama was capable of such things. (We learned long ago that Mr. Obama will say or do just about anything to advance what he believes is in his political interests.) It’s that he was arrogant enough to think he could get away with it.

Which leads me to a final point. The president, always a distant, somewhat withdrawn, and imperious figure, now seems encased in a world all his own. One senses that Mr. Obama has surrounded himself with courtiers whose jobs are to affirm his greatness and his glory. He and they live in a bubble. The president is acting as if America is comprised solely of people who host, appear on, or watch MSNBC. Disagree with Republicans? Don’t engage with them and by all means don’t negotiate with them. Instead drop rhetorical acid on their heads. Describe them as jihadists, terrorists, anarchists, arsonists, gun-to-the-head hostage takers, and (to quote White House aide Dan Pfeiffer) “people with a bomb strapped to their chest.” And all of America will cheer. 

But it turns out that Americans don’t precisely align their views with Chris Matthews, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Rachel Maddow. And they don’t much like their president acting as if he is the deputy communications director of the DNC. 

Who knew? 

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