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Elaine Dutka

Elaine Dutka

Posted: October 8, 2010 06:15 PM

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 women.

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 better.

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.