What Happened to Candidate Obama?

President Obama is facing the toughest test of his presidency. George Stephanopoulos says he needs to go on "a solid two week vacation." His poll numbers are sliding. And the pundits, both on the left and right, are taking shots. His signature legislative agenda item is on the rocks. How far we have come from candidate Obama, who seemingly could do no wrong.

Obama's candidacy was defined (to the exasperation of conservatives) by idealism, appeals to bipartisanship, and competency. He is now short on all three -- which explains why his support among voters and especially independents (who were susceptible to pledges to end old-style politics) has plummeted.

As for the idealism, no president has sunk so far so fast. Candidate Obama chastised Washington as a place where good ideas died. He summoned young voters with high-minded slogans and Kennedy-esque rhetoric. Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush were mere politicians; he was the leader of a whole new era in politics.

Now? Opponents of health care are stooges, evil-mongers, and villains. Citizen activists are to be reported to the authorities for spreading misinformation or ridiculed. The candidate with the superior temperament has devolved into a peevish president exasperated that mere citizens would question his wisdom or stand in his way.

On the foreign policy front, idealism is replaced by brutal realism, but a realism which assumes that despots can be trusted and persuaded by diplomatic talk alone. As Elliot Abrams explained in detailing the visit of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak:

Unless he read the Washington Post's powerful editorials about Egypt and Obama's human rights policy, Mubarak must have been a happy man. When he sat next to the president for their press conference in the Oval Office, Mubarak must have noted that Obama didn't pronounce the word "freedom," or "democracy," or even "reform." In fact it was Mubarak who did, saying that "I have entered into the election based on a platform that included reforms. ..." This is laughable, of course, for Mubarak has never held a free election and immediately after the last one jailed his sole opponent, Ayman Nour.

But this is not the exception -- it is the new rule of American foreign policy. Iranian students, dissidents in Cuba, and human rights victims in Venezuela and China do not command his attention. There are bargains to be struck, he imagines, with all manner of despots so now is no time to rock the boat. Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega, and the Iranian mullahs are all worthy of indulgence.