This is how a presidency fails. It doesn't happen all at once even if future historians may single out this particular defeat or that particular calamity as an administration comes apart. The defeats and disappointments, like milestones on a steep incline, seem to come closer and closer together as momentum increases and the downward rush accelerates. Only in retrospect does the failure come to seem inevitable.
At the time, it seems the dismal trend could be reversed with just one lucky break, one signal accomplishment. Nothing is fated. And yet day by day, month after month, as the time to arrest the fall grows a little shorter every day, the administration just goes through the same motions with the same lack of effect, asking the same questions over and over again:
How turn things around? Is it just a problem of Public Relations? Or something more that has destroyed its old aura of assurance an aura that was so clear just a little while ago?
Things happen fast in administrations, sometimes even before the politicians realize they're happening. Denial is the first stage in the process of failure, and the longer it lasts, the more probable the failure. "All that's happened," the president assured his party as the aftershocks of its defeat in Massachusetts continued to reverberate, "is that we've gone from the largest Senate majority in a generation to the second-largest Senate majority in a generation." Big deal. Pay it no mind.
Barack Obama was whistling so loud, I kept looking around for the cemetery he must have been passing. It must be a mighty scary one for the president to sound so unconcerned. Yes, it was just one Senate seat lost. But it was in Massachusetts Massachusetts! The bluest of blue states, where Ted Kennedy's seat had had a RESERVED sign on it for 46 years. Can the president be oblivious to such a portent of elections to come? What country is he living in? Were his party's impressive losses in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races just minor details, too? Incidental little skirmishes to be brushed aside? Like failing to occupy Little Roundtop on the first day of Gettysburg?
Please. There's a difference between trying to keep up party morale and a leader's doing it so unconvincingly that he only adds to the sense of an impending rout. Where can the magic have gone?
The more this president talks, the less convincing he sounds. Addressing the remaining Democrats in the Senate, still mighty in numbers but no longer in spirit, he spoke of taking a "non-ideological" course. This from a president who's long talked like an ideologue when he needed to, specifically of the populist variety. He'd just denounced "fat-cat bankers" with their "massive profits and obscene bonuses." Now, he's discovered, "We can't be demonizing every bank out there."
Having just proposed a broad array of new taxes on businesses large and small, the president told his fellow Democrats, "We've got to be the party of business, small business and large business." Which is it going to be another crusade against malefactors of great wealth or a pro-business stance this time around?
Both, apparently, depending on the time and place and the country's mood at the moment. The contradictions in his speeches pile up. The only thing sure about Barack Obama now is his dwindling credibility. It sounds like what he really needs to do is Stop. Sit down somewhere quiet, close the door and just think. Instead, he keeps parroting campaign slogans, even if they don't quite fit together.
A president so personally popular still has a lot of room for error. Even some of his harshest critics, those who dote on his every stumble, cannot be hoping he will fail, not if they think about it, for his failure would to a great extent be the country's. Yet it becomes harder and harder to deny that he is flailing if not failing, as if he were trying to get some traction, find some purchase, but can't. Despite all he says, out of both sides of his mouth, the natives grow restless.
We've seen this happen before, and it's not a pretty sight. Like a car wreck in slow motion. It happened to Mr. Obama's predecessor in the White House during his second term after Katrina and at the war's low point in Iraq, where all appeared lost before the Surge. It happened to Jimmy Carter in a single term. There is a tide in the affairs of man. There is a momentum to failure, and unless it is stopped, decisively, and the whole cascade of defeats reversed, defeat builds on defeat. If nothing succeeds like success in this country, nothing fails like failure.
In the meantime, the smoother the president's presentations, the emptier his policies seem. The economic recovery is still fighting to regain its wind. The president's foreign policy doesn't seem like a policy at all but a series of disconnected gestures. And the greater the gaps between his words and actions, the more his political standard twists slowly in the wind. Here was last week's rationale for the historic deficits he's building into the government's budget for years to come:
"Just as it would be a terrible mistake to borrow against our children's future to pay our way today, it would be equally wrong to neglect their future by failing to invest in areas that will determine our economic success in this new century."
So which is it going to be? Save or spend? Both, of course. The president used to be able to make indecision sound practical, reasoned, above ideology, even eloquent. Now it just sounds false. How long before it sounds increasingly desperate?
What's the president to do? Make a clear choice. The way Franklin Roosevelt let the American people know that Dr. New Deal had been replaced by Dr. Win-the-War. The way George W. Bush, at the lowest ebb of American fortunes in Iraq, took hold of his own administration and shook it hard, exchanging one secretary of defense for another, switching commanding generals and strategies, and ordering a Surge instead of continuing the same old failed policies.
Mr. President, make some hard choices and let the American people know what they are. If they turn out to be the wrong ones, no doubt you'll pay the political price. But if you continue to waver, you'll pay the price anyway. At least you will have stood for something clear, the way Harry Truman did even as his popularity plummeted. Mr. Truman knew history would extend past the next election, and trusted it to vindicate him. Show that you do, too, by marking out a clear course.
Mr. President, if you're going to shift into reverse, do it openly. If you're determined to stay the course, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes, then do that. But, please, don't pretend you can do both at the same time. Indecisiveness is a kind of guaranteed defeat itself. Act. And make it clear you're acting. And in which direction you're heading.
This president hasn't heeded such counsel before, and why should he? He's the great politician. Didn't he just win a presidential election less than two years ago, though now it seems the distant past? Why should he do anything different from what he's been doing? Because, like the rest of the country, despite all his protestations and empty cheer, he's got to feel his hold on the American people slipping, along with his power to shape events. It's time for the captain of our good ship to master the river's current, not just drift with it. The great rushing sound from just around the bend is that of a crashing waterfall.
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