What happened to President Obama? His wax wings having melted, he is the man who fell to earth. What happened to bring his popularity down farther than that of any new president in polling history save Gerald Ford (post–Nixon pardon)?
The conventional wisdom is that Obama made a tactical mistake by farming out his agenda to Congress and allowing himself to be pulled left by the doctrinaire liberals of the Democratic congressional leadership. But the idea of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi pulling Obama left is quite ridiculous. Where do you think he came from, this friend of Chavista ex-terrorist William Ayers, of PLO apologist Rashid Khalidi, of racialist inciter Jeremiah Wright?
But forget the character witnesses. Just look at Obama’s behavior as president, beginning with his first address to Congress. Unbidden, unforced, and unpushed by the congressional leadership, Obama gave his most deeply felt vision of America, delivering the boldest social-democratic manifesto ever issued by a U.S. president. In American politics, you can’t get more left than that speech and still be on the playing field.
In a center-Right country, that was problem enough. Obama then compounded it by vastly misreading his mandate. He assumed it was personal. This, after winning by a mere seven points in a year of true economic catastrophe, of an extraordinarily unpopular Republican incumbent, and of a politically weak and unsteady opponent. Nonetheless, Obama imagined that, as Fouad Ajami so brilliantly observed, he had won the kind of banana-republic plebiscite that grants caudillo-like authority to remake everything in one’s own image.
Accordingly, Obama unveiled his plans for a grand makeover of the American system, animating that vision by enacting measure after measure that greatly enlarged state power, government spending, and national debt. Not surprisingly, these measures engendered powerful popular skepticism that burst into tea-party town-hall resistance.
Obama’s reaction to that resistance made things worse. Obama fancies himself tribune of the people, spokesman for the grass roots, harbinger of a new kind of politics from below that would upset the established lobbyist special-interest order of Washington. Yet faced with protests from a real grassroots movement, his party and his supporters called it a mob — misinformed, misled, irrational, angry, unhinged, bordering on racist. All this while the administration was cutting backroom deals with every manner of special interest — from drug companies to auto unions to doctors — in which favors worth billions were quietly and opaquely exchanged.
“Get out of the way” and “don’t do a lot of talking,” the great bipartisan scolded opponents whom he blamed for creating the “mess” from which he is merely trying to save us. If only they could see. So with boundless confidence in his own persuasiveness, Obama undertook a summer campaign to enlighten the masses by addressing substantive objections to his reforms.
Things got worse still. With answers so slippery and implausible and, well, fishy, he began jeopardizing the most fundamental asset of any new president — trust. You can’t say that the system is totally broken and in need of radical reconstruction, but nothing will change for you; that Medicare is bankrupting the country, but $500 billion in cuts will have no effect on care; that you will expand coverage while reducing deficits — and not inspire incredulity and mistrust. When ordinary citizens understand they are being played for fools, they bristle.
After a disastrous summer — mistaking his mandate, believing his press, centralizing power, governing left, disdaining citizens for (of all things) organizing — Obama is in trouble.
Let’s be clear: This is a fall, not a collapse. He’s not been repudiated or even defeated. He will likely regroup and pass some version of health-insurance reform that will restore some of his clout and popularity.
But what has occurred — irreversibly — is this: He’s become ordinary. The spell is broken. The charismatic conjurer of 2008 has shed his magic. He’s regressed to the mean, tellingly expressed in poll numbers hovering at 50 percent.
For a man who only recently bred a cult, ordinariness is a great burden, and for his acolytes, a crushing disappointment. Obama has become a politician like others. And like other flailing presidents, he will try to salvage a cherished reform — and his own standing — with yet another prime-time speech.
But for the first time since election night in Grant Park, he will appear in the most unfamiliar of guises — mere mortal, a treacherous transformation to which a man of Obama’s supreme self-regard may never adapt.