As he heads for the debt-limit showdown with Republicans, President Obama cannot be comforted by the latest Gallup Poll that shows him trailing the generic Republican presidential candidate by five percentage points. Republicans won't vote for him; Obama has lost support among Independents and has alienated many Democrats. What happened?
Fortunately for Obama, there is no "generic" Republican presidential candidate; the GOP isn't offering vanilla but instead varieties of tutti-frutti. Head to head the president leads each of the announced candidates including Romney and Bachmann. But that shouldn't cause observers to discount his drooping poll numbers. The president has a problem that may thwart his reelection bid.
One explanation is the "The Great Recession," where unemployment hovers around 9 percent and millions of Americans are without meaningful work. Nonetheless, while voters grumble about Obama's handling of the economy, they understand that he inherited a gigantic mess from the Bush administration. A recent McClatchey/Marist poll found that 61 percent of respondents blame Republicans for the economic malaise. Obama's problem is deeper.
When Barack Obama was elected president, many of us -- the 53 percent of the electorate who voted for him -- had extremely high expectations. Over 31 months our hopes have diminished. As a consequence, Liberals now routinely castigate the president on a wide range of issues.
The president's handling of the economy has provoked the most criticism. Writing in New York magazine, retired Times columnist Frank Rich blasted Obama "for the stunning lack of accountability for the greed and misdeeds that brought America to its gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression." As a consequence, "a [large] share of the American electorate views him as a tool of the very fat-cat elite that despises him." "By failing to address that populist anger, Obama gave his enemies the opening to co-opt it and turn it against him. Which the tea party did, dishonestly but brilliantly..."
It's hard to find any major Democratic constituency that is happy with President Obama. Many Americans are dissatisfied with his handling of the war in Afghanistan; they believe he chose to escalate when common sense called for withdrawal. Lawyers are concerned with the Department of Justice's handling of suspected terrorists and the failure to close Guantanamo prison. Feminists are aggrieved by policies that have led to a diminution of services to women and children. Environmentalists are concerned about the Obama administration's failure to aggressively address Global Climate Change. And on and on.
What happened? Frank Rich complains about Obama's "passivity." Others grumble the supposedly great communicator has failed to control the political narrative -- as is currently the case where the discussion in Washington centers on the Republican theme, "reduce the deficit," when it should be on "increase the number of good jobs." Writing in the New York Review, Yale Professor David Bromwich observed, "Obama has always preferred the symbolic authority of the grand utterance to the actual authority of a directed policy... protracted moods of extreme abstraction seem to alternate with spasmodic engagement."
Not surprisingly, there's recently been a spate of articles "psychoanalyzing" the president. Writing in the New Yorker, George Packer observed that Obama "takes responsibility as an end in itself." In his blog, Packer explained, "there something in Obama's character that needs to be seen as reasonable -- as the one grown-up -- in the room -- and that is deeper than any partisan policy views he might hold."
Out here on the left coast, we don't need to resort to psychoanalysis to agree on two things: First, in 2009 President Obama bungled a historic opportunity to fix America's financial system. He failed to break up the too-big-to-fail banks, hold Wall Street speculators accountable, and, in general, bring fairness to the economy.
Second, Barack Obama has not been the leader we expected. He is competent but not transformational. He is responsible but not a visionary.
The core of our dissatisfaction may stem from what initially attracted us -- the notion of Obama being the first black president of the United States. Those of us who value the civil rights movement saw Obama's election as the culmination of an epic struggle featuring American heroes like Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King, Jr. We were inspired by Barack's soaring oratory and believed he would care more about social justice. We expected him to be a hero.
Now we recognize that Barack Obama is a realist, not an idealist. We understand that above all else, he is a politician. In 2008, Americans elected the black Bill Clinton -- without the sex addiction. That's better than electing a generic Republican, but still a big disappointment.
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