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.
Bipartisanship has also crashed and burned. During the campaign we heard there was no blue or red America and that the baggage of past political feuds would be left aside. He vowed to put Republicans in his cabinet and to end the blood battles of the Bush years.
Now we get from the president:
I think early on, a decision was made by the Republican leadership that said, "Look, let's not give him a victory, maybe we can have a replay of 1993, '94, when Clinton came in, he failed on health care and then we won in the mid-term elections and we got the majority." And I think there are some folks who are taking a page out that playbook.
Obama and the Democrats threaten to "go it alone" on health care -- ignoring the burgeoning opposition within Democratic ranks. They plan on using the highly controversial reconciliation process to run roughshod over opponents in the Senate. The president, who never solicited GOP input, declares them to be implacable foes and their ideas out of the realm of consideration.
And then there is the promise of competency. Obama was not going to repeat the lax management and administrative failings of his predecessors. He had no experience, but “judgment” we were promised and he was going to govern with an eye toward pragmatism not pie-in-the-sky adventurism. He was “No Drama” Obama, cool and collected.
Now the adjective most associated with his administration is "chaos." Liberals are amazed he has frittered away the opportunity of a generation to pass the Democratic dream of nationalized health care. Conservatives marvel that he could have delegated the drafting process to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.
In sum, anyone hoping Obama would usher in a new era of idealism, bipartisanship and effective governance must be sorely disappointed. It is now about brute power and bare knuckle politics. The issue of the day now is: Can the president muscle through his increasingly unpopular health care plan by skirting congressional tradition and ignoring any angry electorate?
As the reality of President Obama replaces the promise of candidate Obama, the public has recoiled. Unless the Obama they voted for reappears he is unlikely to regain his standing with voters. And those congressmen and senators who have tied their futures to Obama's popularity will need to give voters a reason not to take their anger out on them. Or they too will find themselves, as Obama now is, in the voters’ dog house.