As we await President Barack Obama's first State of the Union speech, there are clear signs of "Obama fatigue" setting in. Recently I spent a lot of time with some relatives and old friends, so when the president's happy or frowning visage came on the tube I could gauge the gut-level reactions.
My family and friends run the gamut of the political spectrum, so they form my own little focus group. The moderates and conservatives are both Republican and Democrat, and most of them actually voted for Obama, convinced by the candidate's soaring rhetoric and his elderly opponent John McCain's creaky appearance that the first black president in American history should be given a chance. Yet when Obama's face came on the tube, every one of them reacted negatively.
Some shook their heads, kind of smirking. Others were more visceral in their grimaces and body language. They voiced the usual conservative talking points about "big government takeover," but they also complained about the bailout of wealthy bank executives and auto companies while "the little guy" suffered.
Some agreed that financial re-regulation was necessary, not only over the conservative punching bags of Fannie and Freddie Mac but also reinstatement of Glass-Steagall-type restrictions between investment and commercial banks. "Make banking boring again," one said. I even detected an openness among some to try liberal health care solutions like the public option.
Interestingly, when I pointed out that the Congressional Republicans seem dead set on opposing anything Obama does, most of them agreed. But they were interested in results, not excuses. And the man they had voted for to solve the nation's problems was bogged down in the swamp of Washington DC. "We elected him to figure this out," said one. "He hasn't figured out anything, and the country is going downhill."
The reaction of the liberals in the family was even more surprising. Most of them were even more visceral in their disgust with Obama than the conservatives. Having been ecstatic when Obama was voted in, having felt themselves part of a historical wave that had elected what they thought was a transformative figure like Franklin Roosevelt, now they were deeply suspicious.
"I can't believe a word he says," said one. "He completely duped us. On the campaign trail he showed us one face, and now as president another."
Interestingly, they were upset over some of the same things as the conservatives, such as the bailout of the banks, lack of strong financial re-regulation proposals, and the inability to solve the health care problem.
When I pointed out the complexity of the problems he had inherited, including a collapsing economy and a Congress beholden to special interests like health insurance companies, they acknowledged those challenges but didn't cut Obama any slack. When I pointed out that he needs votes from 60 out of 100 Senators to get anything done -- meaning that the 40 Republican senators representing only a third of the nation, joined by a single conservative Democrat or independent, can halt everything -- they were impatient.
"Whatever happened to the Internet presidency, where he was going to mobilize Obama's army to pressure foot-dragging Democratic senators?" said one liberal friend. "Personally, I don't think he really cares about the public option, or many other things he said on the campaign trail. He lets the wealthy set the agenda, all these politicians are the same."
Remarkably, many of the complaints between the liberals and conservatives were not all that different. They seemed to share common ground in that they wanted solutions to the country's many challenges. What none of them had patience for was the gripping sense that the country is stalled.
Despite all of Obama's soaring oratory about pulling together as a nation to solve deep economic, health care, and global warming crises, they all felt Obama is not delivering. Whether his inabilities are related to personal shortcomings or the defects of America's antiquated political system, they were not much interested. All they were interested in was results. And a year into his presidency, Obama was failing to produce much of those.
So when seeing Obama on their TV screens, nearly every one of them shook their heads, grimaced, snorted or chuckled, and then quickly changed the channel. I don't recall George W. Bush reaching this point in his presidency until near the end of his first term. If that's a bellwether, then Obama is in trouble. His post-election mandate is gone, his 60 votes in the Senate are gone, and what's left is the tough slog ahead of modest accomplishments. Unfortunately, the country needs much more than that. Fasten your seatbelts, we are in for a long ride.
[Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program for the New America Foundation. His new book, Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, was published in January 2010 by the University of California Press]