Obama's Mandela Moment

Anatomy of an Obama moment

In a news-obsessed culture, sometimes the media simply ignores profound stories, such as the cause of the almost inexplicable — and quite brilliantly constructed — recovery of Obama’s poll ratings.

Just a few weeks ago, the negative impressions of President Obama’s performance, in most of the polls, outranked the favorable, and by anywhere from 3-6 points. All the buzz was of Jimmy Carter redux, and the November historic sweep, with even more to come in 2012. Now? Suddenly, Obama is enjoying about a 3-6 point positive edge (5.6 in the aggregate RealClearPolitics latest posting). That’s a dramatic reversal of some 6-12 points in just a few weeks.


Why no in-depth exegesis of that astounding development?

Obama’s recovery was not merely a result of the media-created blitz of December about “momentum,” “recovery,” and “triangulation” after the acceptance of the Bush-era tax rates, the approval of the START treaty, and the end of "don’t ask, don’t tell." That bump was only about 1-2 points, and by mid-January Obama still suffered higher negatives than positives.

So are things getting that much better?

So was the upswing due to falling energy prices? Nope — gas and heating costs are skyrocketing, and in part due to new federal restrictions on leasing of oil and gas coupled with an anemic dollar.

Good news on the deficit? Hardly. We’re on schedule to pile up more trillion-dollar-plus annual deficits, as Obama’s own departing economic gurus like Summers, Romer, and Orszag are strangely now warning us of the long-term consequences of their own flawed policies.

Foreign affairs breakthroughs? No again: Putin is still roguish and gleeful about taking us to the cleaners. Ditto looming crises with Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. The Middle East is a tinderbox. Mexico is a failed state. We have no China policy and are merely passive-aggressive. The world is far scarier than in January 2009.

Obama’s moment

Instead, the current rise is exclusively a direct result of three interrelated phenomena: 1) the tragic January 8, 2011, Tucson shootings; 2) the hysterical left-wing scapegoating of everyone from the Tea Party to Sarah Palin for the violence; and 3) the sudden emergence of a sober and judicious Mandela-like Obama, quite admirably calling for calm on all sides — while suggesting simultaneously that the horrific killings had no connection with the right wing, but also that the horrific killings offer an appropriate moment to reconsider all political zealotry in general.

In the ensuing ten days, Obama’s polls and approval have skyrocketed.

However politically brilliant all of this was, it remains in some sense quite morbid, in a creepy sort of never-waste-a-tragedy sense. The reaction to the killings almost instantly blotted out information about and concern for the dead and maimed. Yet in this entire confusing media circus, questions simply were not only not answered, but in fact never raised.

The inexplicable

In logical terms, how are we to use a moment to reexamine political speech when the moment was explicitly declared not to be connected with political speech at all?

How can a president subtly distance himself from the macabre and revolting behavior of his left-wing base while simultaneously editorializing on unhinged invective in general (e.g., without an embarrassing extreme, there is no occasion to call for moderation from others)?

Why did five days of presidential silence follow the shootings (so unlike instant editorializing about the Mutallab and Hasan incidents), when the likes of Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, Andrew Sullivan, Sheriff Dupnik, and the New York Times rushed in to scavenge political capital amid the carnage? All that might have been bridled with a brief word or two from the White House, a brief Sister Souljah moment admonition to the New York Times to cool it for a while. We know that would have worked, because the Times within hours after the successful Obama speech was calling to cool what it had helped arouse, apparently realizing that its demonization and its refutation of demonization hand-in-glove were politically useful.

And why not some therapeutic confessional of past (and in many cases quite recent) presidential culpability (e.g., the president’s own metaphorical use of knives, guns, enemies, punishing, kicking ass, relegation to backseat, get angry, getting in their face, hostage takers, trigger fingers, tearing up)?