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Has Obama Peaked? Yes, He Has

Has Obama Peaked? Yes, He Has

By Steven Stark - November 12, 2009

To listen to some pundits, Barack Obama's public image began taking a serious beating when the off-year election returns came in a week ago. Or maybe it was the undeserved Nobel Prize, his approach to the war in Afghanistan, or when he revved up his pursuit of national health-care reform.

But the pundits, as usual, are wrong. In reality, Obama peaked the night he was elected.

That astonishing evening was both a blessing and a curse for our 44th president. As the first African-American elected to the Oval Office, Obama made the history books in indelible fashion, generating an uplifting sense of national pride and renewal along the way.

That alone is more than many presidents accomplish in a lifetime. But that achievement- if that's what you want to call it - came a very long year ago, before he was even president. The 10 months since he took the oath of office have been a letdown, even to most of his supporters.

Obama still doesn't seem to grasp that the collective Election Night reverie is over, and that now we are waiting for him to lead us in real time. Sure, a little bit of hubris was probably inevitable, but it led Obama to conclude, despite what he said back then, that the historic election had been about him. When in the end, as always, it was about us.

That night began to reveal an unfortunate truth: having reached a pinnacle on the day he was elected, Obama's popularity and relationship with the American people had nowhere to go but down. That's a difficult adjustment to make, and is reminiscent of the apocryphal story about the obsessed fan and her friends who worshipped and followed the Rolling Stones. One night, the fan finally got to spend the evening with Mick Jagger. After she emerged from the hotel the next morning, her friends asked her how it went.

"Well," she said, "he was alright. But he's no Mick Jagger."

Something similar was bound to happen with Obama. Some figures grow during their time in the presidency; others diminish. Obama's path was pre-ordained: unless he was able to achieve significant political victories immediately, he was destined to become - at least for a while - the incredible shrinking president.

It hasn't helped matters that Obama is the first president to serve in the post-Internet age. For a while, the mainstream media - what little of it is left, anyway - gave Obama a virtual free ride. Even as they have become more skeptical, however, they've been drowned out by the increasingly loud faithful on both sides who reflexively praise or trash him.

Who knows what to believe or how to figure out equilibrium anymore? The press used to be a check on presidents, but no longer. In the current Balkanized media environment, it's possible for Obama to read glowing reports from the adulatory left about his performance - regardless of how badly he screws up - while automatically discrediting the opposition press. As a logical result of this situation, he's become both overconfident and unable to figure out what the vast middle of the electorate really wants. In a nutshell, that's the quandary Obama has faced to this point - though he doesn't seem to know it.

Rookie mistakes
This isn't to say that Obama hasn't also made the understandable mistakes that rookies always commit. Like most who are new to the big leagues, Obama hasn't spent enough time in public life to befriend the right people. As a result, he relies too heavily on the folks who got him where he is - whether from the campaign or Chicago - when he really needs advisors who see the world differently than he does, and are willing tell him what he doesn't want to hear.

In terms of practical leadership, then, Obama has let Congress take the lead (which, if he were an effective leader, he wouldn't allow to happen), even though its approval ratings are some 30 points below his. Worse, when it comes to finding "experts" to solve our national crises, he has relied on all the usual, conventional suspects, such as Tim Geithner and Larry Summers - even though they're the sort of people who helped get us into this economic mess in the first place. Having bought into a solution to the financial crisis that centered around bailing out Wall Street - essentially a continuation of the Bush policy, despite what the Tea Partiers think - he's left himself open to a populist insurgency that poses the biggest threat to his political success. It's no surprise that Main Street no longer trusts Obama- it never will.

Another rookie mistake of Obama's is his belief that, in order to wrest control back from adversity, he must repeat what he did as a successful candidate. In his case, that means making endless public appearances, delivering the same speeches, and attacking his political enemies with the talking points of the day. But Obama isn't in Kansas or anymore. Or, more to the point, Illinois.

Put simply, Obama has misread his mandate. Perhaps he thought he was elevated to pass health care - they loved it in Iowa! - but in fact it was the economic crisis that got him elected, is now our national preoccupation, and will be the solution of which (or lack of one) that determines whether he's re-elected.

Obama seems to have forgotten all the stuff he proclaimed in the campaign about a new type of non-divisive presidency, even though that promise of bipartisanship was the facet of his candidacy that appealed the most to independents. Of course, the Republicans have made bipartisanship difficult. But he was the one in the campaign who claimed he could deal in a new way with those across the aisle - in contrast with his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, who once called that opposition "the vast right-wing conspiracy."

Obama further miscalculated what a president actually does and is expected to do in a constitutionally weak office. When it comes to the economy in an interdependent world, there's not a whole lot under his office's control.

Now that we, as a nation, have awakened from our post-election, post-racial dream state, we've begun to notice that our president may not be much interested in being a chief "executive," given that he's never run anything before or expressed the slightest inclination to do so. He has big ideas, to be sure, but that's only a small part of the job. The hard, nitty-gritty labor of figuring out how government can actually work better - the operative word is "governing" - seems to hold no appeal for him.

Put another way, where are our flu shots? It's worth recalling that, in what seems a lifetime ago, it was Clinton - not Obama - who promised to be ready on Day One.

Even giving speeches is overrated, especially in a media universe so oversaturated that the president can't get nearly the mass audience he could just a generation ago, when there were only three networks and no Internet. The bully pulpit has become a megaphone, and not a very large one at that.

The question now is whether Obama can learn and change. It's not an easy one to answer. Yes, all presidents have to grow in office to prosper. Many of the challenges Obama faces - to say goodbye to most of his old friends or recalibrate his political antenna - have been ably surmounted by others with less talent and far less brains. But brains are overrated in the presidency: just look at the politically successful Ronald Reagan and the unsuccessful Jimmy Carter.

Besides, what Obama needs to do requires more of a psychological transformation than an intellectual one. The milestone-minded, transformative nature of his candidacy can never be replicated or matched - you can only be elected the first African-American once. He needs to come down from his mountaintop because, in this country, only the faithful appreciate a president who consistently makes us listen to him, rather than the other way around.

So far, the signs aren't good. In his quest to surpass what he's done before and reprise his role as the nation's Moses, Obama appears to be on the verge of an "historic" remake of one-sixth of the American economy, namely health care - despite the fact that a solid majority of Americans oppose the change. Whatever the merits, pushing for major societal change without bringing society along is a guarantee of prolonged strife, and is as unprecedented in its own way as his election was. It is - dare we say it? - very George W. Bush-like in its disregard of the popular will; meaning that, in the ultimate irony, history may pair these two as mirror reflections of one another.

Obama was the ideal leader to help us reach a watershed moment and cross a racial threshold. Unexpectedly for him - and for us - that was the easy part.

To read the "Stark Ravings" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/starkravings.

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