As President Obama’s approval drops to 40 percent and independents are fleeing him in droves, as the economy continues to stagger and comparisons to the failed presidency of Jimmy Carter are increasingly being made by Democrats, it’s worth recalling the almost cult-like reverence Obama inspired after his election. You need not go further than this November 7, 2008 broadcast of “The Charlie Rose Show,” which featured a conversation with David Remnick of The New Yorker and historians Alan Brinkley and Michael Beschloss.
“The extraordinary outpouring of celebration, joy, and hope all over the world at this election is something I could never have imagined in my lifetime,” according to Professor Brinkley.”There’s a discipline to Obama that is so extraordinary,” he raved. And then he added: “I don’t think we’ve had a president since Lincoln who has the oratorical skills that Obama has. Obama has that quality that Lincoln had.”
Remnick, too, compared Obama’s rhetorical skills to Lincoln. The campaign also “shows him in a decision-making mold that is very encouraging.” Obama demonstrates a “receptivity to ideas outside the frame” and possesses a “worldview that allows for complexity.” He “assumes a maturity in the American public” and possesses “great audacity.” And not to believe Obama’s election will have “enormous effect” on the streets of Cairo, or Nairobi, or Jerusalem is “naive.” We were dealing, after all, with a tranformational president unlike any in our lifetime.
On and on it went, to the point that Remnick finally had to say, “We’ll climb out of the tank soon.” And while Rose’s guests inserted a qualifier here and a caveat there, reminding viewers Obama’s greatness as a chief executive still had to be proved, the infatuation with America’s 44th president is unmistakable.
Since then, the Obama presidency has suffered an enormous erosion in support. In this country, Democrats in 2010 experienced the worst electoral thrashing since the early part of the 20th century. In the Arab world, President Obama is less popular than his predecessor. Obama’s ineptness in the debt ceiling debate has infuriated his own party; so has his lack of leadership. Even Obama’s vaunted communications skills are being roundly criticized.
We have been here before. The last liberal apotheosis was in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson won the largest victory since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. Forty-seven Democrats were elected to the House. The early years of the Johnson presidency saw huge legislative achievements in federal aid to education, immigration, Medicare and civil rights. “The right had been rendered a joke, an embarrassment, a political footnote — probably for good,” is how Rick Perlestein, author of Nixonland, put it. “These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem,” LBJ said in December 1964.
A little more than 1,000 days later, Johnson shocked the nation by declaring, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” Seven months later, Richard Nixon won the presidency, beginning a run of four GOP presidential victories in five contests.
There are substantial differences between the Obama and Johnson situations, of course, beginning with the fact Obama will run for re-election. Still, to witness the rapid collapse of the two most liberal presidents of the modern era is a reminder of how transitory approbation and extolment can be. We’ve learned that historians and journalists might want to exercise a bit more restraint before comparing (rhetorically or otherwise) a one-term senator who has just won an election to Lincoln.
We’re reminded, too, qualities that appear to be strengths when things are going well are viewed as weaknesses when things are collapsing. And in the case of Obama, some of us warned at the dawn of his presidency governing would be much more challenging than he and his academic/journalistic courtiers imagined. The widespread cockiness that characterized the early days of the Obama presidency has given way to confusion. Obama’s own aides are now privately conceding he may well lose his re-election bid.
Whether or not that happens remains to be seen. And it’s conceivable Obama will fashion a stirring comeback that relies on a surging economic recovery.
But I rather doubt it. I have believed all along Obama’s ultimate failure as a president will be the result of terribly flawed policies, which are in turn the product of his liberal/progressive political ideology. If I am wrong, the burden will be on me to explain why Barack Obama became a great and successful president. But if I am right, I look forward to a future “Charlie Rose Show” that features Messrs. Remnick, Brinkley, Beschlos, and Rose explaining how our next Lincoln–a man they considered nearly flawless and destined for once-in-a-century greatness–turned out to have failed his country on so many counts.