It might have been the most revelatory moment of the Obama presidency. In an interview with Time magazine, a chastened President Barack Obama talked of his sputtering Middle East peace initiative. "This is just really hard," he explained. "This is as intractable a problem as you get."
As an observation, this is as banal as it gets. After all the wars and all the terror attacks against Israel and all the frustrated American diplomatic forays across the last two administrations, no one should be surprised at the intractability of the Israeli-Arab conflict. But Obama sounded as if it were painful new information that had forced an unwelcome adjustment in his worldview.
This speaks either to an astonishing historical ignorance (did he not know?) or a stupendous self-regard (did he not care because he thought he was so special?), or both.
There is already a debate over what went wrong with the Obama presidency. Is his team of advisers nearly universally considered the best and the brightest until the day before yesterday serving him poorly? Has he failed to communicate effectively, even though almost all his speeches have been critically acclaimed? Did he fail to "pivot to jobs" fast enough?
Actually, Obama has a more worrisome problem: a reality gap. During the campaign, Obama could throw a rhetorical pixie dust over all the difficult choices inherent in governing and the contradictions of his own program, making them fade into a beguiling vision of a sun-lit post-Bush America. This magical realism sustained him until November 2008, but couldn't withstand governing.
Consider Obama's most elemental appeal as a candidate: He excited the base of his own party while winning over the center with talk of "post-partisanship." On the stump, he could maintain this balance. In office, he had to choose either partisanship in the form of his powerful Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, or post-partisanship in the form of concessions to Republicans that would anger and disappoint his own side. He chose Nancy Pelosi, and watched independents flee from him.
On fiscal policy, Obama could promise massive new programs at the same time, in one debate, he asserted his approach would mean "a net spending cut." A laughable contradiction, it wasn't fully exposed until Obama had to write a budget. With $1 trillion deficits now stretching off into the horizon, his answer is appointing a commission to study the matter.
Obama is still the same illusionist from the campaign on his signature health-care initiative. The new $1 trillion entitlement will reduce the deficit. It will insure millions more people while bending the cost curve down. The hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicare cuts will be utterly painless. There's no trade-off or sacrifice in sight, and not surprisingly people don't believe it.
Obama came to office under fundamental misapprehensions that hamper him still. It's not true that all that was keeping the Israelis and Palestinians apart was the lack of U.S. engagement, or that the Iranians were amenable to getting talked out of their nuclear program, or that Guantanamo Bay was a pointless contrivance.
Nor is it true that government is a sustainable source of economic growth, or a more efficient allocator of capital than the market. This is why Obama's stimulus program inevitably, a dog's breakfast of politically driven priorities is such a shambles that his aides never utter the word "stimulus" anymore. It is on to the next program, a nearly $100 billion "jobs" bill that reflects the touching belief that to work as intended a program only has to be named appropriately.
Obama's advisers want him to pull out of his downdraft by getting back to campaign mode. It's governance as performance art. He's hosting a bipartisan health-care summit on Feb. 25. Surely, he'll sound great and spin gorgeous webs of fancy as the reality gap yawns beneath him.