Every president has a moment when public opinion regarding him solidifies into an enduring image. For FDR it was his great First Inaugural Speech–one of  only a handful that have lived beyond inauguration day–in which he transformed the mood of the country and convinced the people he could deal with the Great Depression. Despite his subsequent mistakes, and the very slow recovery, that image never faded. For Kennedy it was the Cuban Missile speech, which showed that this handsome, witty, somewhat playboy-like president who had at times seemed weak was not. For Reagan it was the air traffic controllers strike in which, like Kennedy, he showed his steel.

Equally, it was when George H. W. Bush abandoned his no-new-taxes pledge that he lost the people, despite his recent triumph in the first Iraq war. Most famously, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech” in which he blamed the American people for a “crisis of  confidence,” was the moment his presidency was fatally  damaged. From that point on, the American people largely tuned him out. They just didn’t like the man.

Was last night’s speech by President Obama his “malaise moment,” the moment when American popular opinion froze into an enduring, and negative image of this president? It was classic Obama: elitist, condescending, impolitic, self-obsessed, and dishonest. As Bill Kristol points out, his description of the debt ceiling (which he apparently regards as so arcane a concept that most of the peasantry–oh, sorry, American citizens–have never heard of it) is flatly false.

The last few days have been extraordinary political theater, with the highest officials in the government calling each other dishonest and untrustworthy on national television. Who knows at this point how it will play out, but it seems to me Obama is just not very good at inside politics, and the people have now caught on to it. As with Jimmy Carter, they are coming to the conclusion they just don’t like the man.

If so, he is in very deep political trouble indeed.


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