Barack Obama and the Changing Political Landscape

10/08/2010 06:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Assessing Barack Obama is a political Rorschach Test. If the left sees
a man wary of rocking the boat, the right sees a fellow who's capsizing it.

The president is inherently centrist and non-confrontational, former
supporters contend. A cipher, going back to his Harvard Law Review
days -- he's all things to all people. Inspired on the campaign trail, he lacks
the spine to lead. Belatedly dropping a futile quest for bi-partisanship, he's
been navigating the waters -- not parting them.

Politics overwhelmed principle, these critics suggest, once reality
set in. He opposed an immediate end to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the
ban on openly gay service members, contending it would hamper
military readiness. Early in the health care battle, he bailed out on the
critical "public option" -- getting nothing in return. Appointing Social Security
foe Alan Simpson to co-chair the deficit reduction committee, they say, is
asking the fox to guard the hen-house. And the financial team was packed
with one-time deregulation advocates who helped to create the crisis.

Obama was dealt the worst hand ever, his defenders maintain. Give
the man a chance. It took years to get us into this mess and will take time
to get us out. Undeterred by two wars and the Great Recession, the Chief
Executive continued to think big. He came out on top of the decades-old
push for health care reform, saved the nation from economic collapse, and
regulated fiscal predators. He also lifted the ban on stem cell research,
signed a nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union, and mandated equal pay for

The Great Communicator, however, has failed to deliver the
message. Hard-fought legislative victories -- monumental, if flawed --
have been painted as the excesses of Big Government. The President's
enemies have framed the debate, transforming his "accomplishments"
into his "agenda." The cool, cerebral leader, they charge, is out-of-touch
and elitist. Bill Clinton, no slouch in the sales department, offered some
marketing advice: Be more aggressive in telling your "story" he said.
Put "jobs" center-stage. People can't "give credit" until they're feeling

Tapping into the fear and rage, the anti-spending Tea Party has emerged from the fringe to become a potent political force. Barreling
ahead with his "socialist" vision, Teabaggers contend, Obama is
eviscerating the Constitution. Twenty states filed suits challenging the
legality of the health care overhaul. Unemployment assistance, minimum
wage, Medicare and even the 1964 Civil Rights Act have also been called
into question.
The explosion of the radical right has less to do with the economy than
with changing demographics, says Mark Potok, Director of the Southern
Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. In 1970, one in five Americans
was non-white -- a figure that has jumped to a third.

"While the Tea Party isn't uniformly racist, there are, certainly, racist
strains," Potok says. "By 2050, whites will be in the minority ... not the
nation envisioned by their Christian forefathers. Obama -- a black guy with
his kids -- is the apotheosis of this. It's a loss of ownership."

It's also the ascension of the "exotic" -- the loss of traditional values.
Obama can only be understood, former Speaker of the House Newt
Gingrich said, "if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior." David
Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, predicted that the nation's
first black president would be "a visual aid" for his ranks. More than one
million people signed a Facebook page praying for Obama's death. Anti-
government "patriot" groups spiked 244% between 2008 and 2009.
"We the people will have our voices heard in Washington, D.C. once
again," said Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell, whose upset win in
Delaware's Republican primary undermined efforts to re-gain the Senate.
Scoring well in the general election, already tough, will be complicated by
old Politically Incorrect clips aired by host Bill Maher. O'Donnell admits to
dabbling in witchraft in her younger days.

The one-time abstinence counselor was endorsed by former Vice
presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a populist powerhouse with an
impassioned following and an eye on 2012. Her picks are the most
extreme he's seen -- well to the right of Bush/Cheney, said former
Democratic Committee Chairman and presidential candidate Howard
Dean. No matter how damaging to their long-term health, few Republicans
have taken her on.

Buoyed by the Supreme Court "Citizens United" case, corporations,
too, are coming on strong. A cadre of business interests and wealthy

individuals is legally channeling unlimited sums into electoral campaigns--
far more than their Democratic counterparts.

Sal Russo, founder of the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express,
poured more than $250,000 into O'Donnell's media buys and raised over
$5 million for other races. The billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and
David, are, purportedly, the fiscal backbone of the Tea Party and a number
of conservative causes. And money talks. Just ask Michael Bloomberg,
who spent his way to a third term as New York City Mayor. Or ex-eBay
CEO Meg Whitman, who wrote checks for a record $119 million, running in
the California gubernatorial race.

Whatever his missteps, he's on the right track, fans of Obama contend.
Much smarter than the opposition (and, certainly, his predecessor), he's
making course corrections. When it comes to disenchantment, they add,
Progressives must share the blame. As star-struck as the 20-somethings,
they set themselves up for a fall. Pinning their hopes on a charismatic
newcomer, they underestimated the intransigence of Washington.
Climbing on the anti-Obama bandwagon is counterproductive, they insist.
The President may not be the dream deferred but the landscape has,
certainly, changed.