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Barack Obama's Memento Presidency

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The first poll results since the president's big speech on the economy last week are in -- and they're not very good. According to a new Washington Post/ABC News survey, the president's approval rating continues to fall, driven by fears about the economy. "Forty-four percent of Americans see the economy as getting worse, the highest percentage to say so in more than two years," wrote Dan Balz and Jon Cohen in the Washington Post. "57 percent disapprove of the job the president is doing dealing with the economy, tying his highest negative rating when it comes to the issue."

Back in the heady days of the 2008 campaign, a powerful, impassioned speech like the one Obama delivered would have had a definite positive impact on the numbers. But the soaring rhetoric now comes with a bitter aftertaste.

Perhaps it's because we feel like we've seen this movie before. Call it "Attack of the Impassioned Yet Empty Rhetoric." But this version was even more unsettling than the earlier versions, in which the president delivered great speeches then failed to back up his words with the promised action. In this sequel, his words turned to broken promises as soon as they passed his lips.

It's almost as if the speech was premised on the hope that most of his audience hadn't been keeping up with the news. "They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that's paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs? That's not right. And it's not going to happen as long as I'm president," he said, drawing rhetorical lines in the sand. The problem is, he had already welcomed Republicans across these lines and enjoyed a few celebratory toasts with them on the other side.

We got used to the president making strong promises and then caving -- from closing Guantanamo to not extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires. Now he's making strong promises he's already broken. He's like a political version of the Guy Pearce character in Memento -- he's figured out a way to break promises outside of the limitations of linear time.

With his signing of the extension of the Bush tax cuts in December and his agreement to cut $38 billion -- including from programs that help the less fortunate he championed in his speech -- his actions pre-belied his upcoming words. As a result, those words, no matter how powerful or masterfully delivered, are no longer working the magic they once did.

So, yes, this was a defiant speech, eloquently defending the idea that the wealthy should bear "a greater share of [the economic] burden than the middle class or those less fortunate" because "of our belief that those who've benefited most from our way of life can afford to give back a little bit more." But this defense is much less effective when it comes four months after you've allowed the rich to pass along that burden to the middle class and the less fortunate.

In his speech, the president spoke repeatedly about the social contract underpinning our country, and how "we're a better country because of these commitments." "Yes," he said, "we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future that we share." If we truly want to preserve our freedom and happiness, "we can't just think about ourselves," he said, "we have to think about our fellow citizens with whom we share a community."

Moving forward, there will be many opportunities for him to demonstrate whether his pledge to "not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations" is something more than a stirring statement turned out by the White House speechwriting shop. The special challenge Obama created for himself with this speech is that he cast the budget fight with the Republicans in terms of abiding American principles and moral choices -- and you simply can't compromise on principles and moral choices in the name of political expediency. At least you can't and still expect your words to be credible.

The good news for the president is that, when it comes to one of the key battles over the economy -- how to deal with the deficit -- sticking to his principles is also smart politics: a recent Gallup poll shows that a majority of voters believe that big corporations and rich Americans are not paying their fair share of taxes. As Chris Cillizza puts it, "If Obama can use the idea of rescinding tax cuts for the wealthy to appeal to middle class voters who feel as though they are forever on the short end of the stick, it could have significant electoral consequences next fall."

George Lakoff hailed Obama's speech as a "work of art," "near perfection," and a return "to his moral vision." For that to be the case, the president's actions can no longer be contradicted by his words.

If this speech truly serves as a framework for how the administration will govern in the lead-up to 2012 -- and if these new lines in the sand turn out to be real -- then I'll be overjoyed to retroactively withdraw my uneasy reaction to it. (Hey, if the president can play with time, why can't I?)

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