This week the president’s positive ratings are hovering around 40-42%; in some polls there is a 10% gap or more between negative and positive appraisals. I expect that they will go back up, and then even lower as the year wears on. But the latest nosedive has prompted many on the left to attack Mr. Obama, from a psychological portrait offered by one Drew Westen to unusual carping from Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen and E. J Dionne. Cornel West is back again, in rather vicious fashion reminding us that he supposedly helped to introduce Obama to us and now regrets that he did, given the president’s purported ingratitude. Often the critics invoke everything from Jimmy Carter parallels to the unease of European statesmen to emphasize their own disappointment (I think that is a fair and tame term, since I doubt their present disenchantment will result in not voting to reelect Obama).
How Could He?
As I can fathom this August of discontent, it runs something like this: at best Barack Obama is too aloof, professorial and unable temperamentally or unwilling politically to mix it up with Republicans. Therefore he has compromised far too much on various budget deals, which in part explains his sagging ratings and the general laments in the American and European press that Obama lacks leadership qualities. The nearly $5 trillion in new debt since 2009 is a needed, if too timid, “stimulus”; and if it is seen by some as too excessive, it can be easily remedied by new taxes on the wealthy — something Obama talks about a lot but does little to enact, this buskin Theramenes who bends with the wind.
At worst, there is a sort of victimization that might be described as, “Obama mesmerized us and therefore we did not quite appreciate how inexperienced and unaccomplished he was until now when we sobered up — and when it is too late.” Or as Drew Westen put it more bluntly and less kindly in the New York Times:
Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.
A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there—the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.
A number of us throughout 2008 and later were criticized for raising just these issues, both about Obama’s lack of experience and his Hamlet-like propensity of hesitation and his academic disengagement. But why this sudden about-face from former disciples?
With Friends Like These…
Politics, of course. The combination of sinking polls to the near 40% range, the stock market nosedive, the Standard and Poor’s downgrade, the tragedy in Afghanistan, the confusion over Libya, the embarrassing golf outings and First Family insensitive preferences for the aristocratic Martha’s Vineyard, Vail, and Costa del Sol have contributed to a general unease on the Left about Obama’s judgment, perhaps to the extent that he might well take the Left down in 2012, both in the House and Senate, whether he wins reelection or not.
But the argument remains incoherent: Obama is being blamed for not being liberal enough — after federalizing much of the health care delivery system, expanding government faster than at any time since 1933, borrowing more money in two and a half years than any president in history, absorbing companies, jawboning the wealthy, going after Boeing, reversing the order of the Chrysler creditors, adding vast new financial and environmental regulations, appointing progressives like a Van Jones or Cass Sunstein, and institutionalizing liberal protocols across the cabinet and bureaucracy, from the EPA to the Attorney General’s Office.
In other words, there is now an elite liberal effort to disentangle Obama from liberalism itself, and to suggest that his sagging polls are not a reflection of Obama’s breakneck efforts to take the country leftward — but either his inability or unwillingness to do so!
Partly, the disappointment is understandably emotional. Just three years ago Obama was acclaimed as a once-in-a-lifetime prophet of liberalism, whose own personal history, charisma, teleprompted eloquence and iconic identity might move a clearly center-right country hard leftward where it otherwise rarely wished to go.
Partly, the anger is quite savvy: if one suddenly blames Obama the man, rather than Obama the ideologue, then his unpopularity is his own, not liberalism’s. There is a clever effort to raise the dichotomy of the inept Carter and the politically savvy Clinton, but in the most improbable fashion: Clinton supposedly was a success not because he was personable, sometimes compromising, and often centrist, and Carter was a failure not because he was sanctimoniously and stubbornly ideological, but just the opposite: Clinton is now reinvented as the true liberal who succeeded because of his principled leftwing politics; Carter like Obama was a bumbling compromiser and waffler.
I think few will believe that implausible narrative, given that Clinton salvaged his presidency after the debacle of Hillarycare and the 1994 midterm bloodbath, only due to Dick Morris’s brilliant and cynical triangulation and his deal-making with Newt Gingrich. In contrast, Carter pretty much stuck to his guns about trumped up fears of communism, the excesses of the wealthy, and the need for more statist control of the economy — and went down in flames for stagflation and an inept foreign policy.
But what are the practical political ramifications of an incipient liberal revolt?
1) Hillary. One can continue to appreciate how brilliant was Obama’s selection of Hillary Clinton as secretary of State. It was not just that he diminished her status by outsourcing much of her job to regional and theater czars, or boxed her in with the “reset” diplomacy of the Susan Rice and Samantha Power sort, or even that her appointment suspended Bill Clinton’s lucrative speechmaking abroad, giving up millions in honoraria at the courts of foreign autocrats and strongmen. More clever yet, Obama seems to have anticipated his present bad stretch in polls and wanted no Teddy Kennedy-like distraction. A Senator Clinton right now would be under some pressure to weigh a divisive run for the nomination. But should Obama implode and see his ratings after three years drop to where George Bush’s were after six years — the 32-36% range — she would be under enormous pressure to declare her candidacy. And unlike Kennedy — who was both an inept candidate and had far too many character flaws and past sins—Hillary Clinton remains a skilled politician, with a brilliant political contortionist as her husband and, of course, has been thoroughly vetted and dissected.
2) Is Race Behind the Leftist Criticism? I think the race card will be put away for just a while — even as it was starting to be replayed. When a Cornel West or a New York Times guest op-ed writer offers Rush Limbaugh-type putdowns and nonetheless remains immune from charges of racialism, then most mainstream critics will probably be as well. Quite simply, from now on to suggest that Obama was not thoroughly vetted, was inexperienced and unqualified, or that he is without leadership qualities and conviction cannot be credibly seen as racially motivated — unless prominent liberals are said themselves to be motivated by such impulses. (And they won’t be so said.)