Obama's self-pitying vanishing act

The incredible shrinking president insists on brushing off criticism of his presidency as unwarranted and personal. That's ridiculous.

(Image credit: (Mark Wilson/Getty Images))

Democrats are flailing in their hunt for a new narrative to reverse the story of their sixth-year midterm blues. Like Republicans who had the same problem in 2006 with George W. Bush, members of Barack Obama's party find themselves tied to a president with plummeting approval ratings, a series of scandals and bungled priorities, and crises unfolding at America's southern border and at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Obama has grown so unpopular, The Hill reports, that some Democratic incumbents consider him a "pariah," and have already begun ducking out of presidential visits in their states and districts.

The White House has thus tried to shift attention from Obama and onto Republicans, even though midterm elections normally act as votes of confidence (or lack thereof) in the president. First the administration attempted to make income inequality, which Democrats laid at the feet of Republicans, the overarching theme of the 2014 midterms. Then Hillary Clinton's gaffes in June about the family's "struggle" while earning more than $100 million in speaking fees since leaving the White House stepped all over that narrative. Democrats fell all over themselves trying to draw a distinction between the Clintons' wealth and that of Mitt Romney, and ended up arguing that personal wealth wasn't really an issue after all.

Next up was a revival of the "war on women" trope, thanks to the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision. Democrats went on a media blitz to convince America that the court somehow just enabled employers to dictate that employees couldn't use birth control at all, that the justices wanted to outlaw contraception, that religion opposes all health care, and that the decision somehow took away the religious freedom of employees because, er, religious freedom somehow relies on having your boss supply contraception for free.

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All of these arguments are nonsensical ignorance at best, and demagoguery at worst. But they're also bad news for the White House, because they aren't working. Despite a week of liberals screaming falsehoods about the Hobby Lobby decision into any open microphone, an Economist/YouGov poll shows that the public tends to favor the ruling. A plurality supports it — 47/41 — and a majority of independent voters back it by a wide margin, 53/36. Women only narrowly oppose the decision — 43/46, a virtual tie — and those women strongly opposed to the outcome (34 percent) barely outstrips those strongly in favor (32 percent).

So now the White House has gone back to the drawing board. President Obama and Eric Holder have both taken a tired narrative from the archives and tried to dust it off this week: Barack Obama, victim.

Holder suggested to ABC News that Obama's sinking poll numbers came from "racial animus." This animus didn't appear to be an insurmountable problem in 2008 and 2012, when Obama's poll numbers were good enough to win national elections. Suddenly, though, it's an excuse for the disenchantment with the president, and a handy way to avoid the substantive criticisms of his performance.

Obama took a slightly different tack in dismissing criticism and opposition. In a series of statements, the president complained that opposition to his agenda is personal, and has nothing to do with his actions or his policies. "[R]ight now," he told ABC News, "we got a Republican Party that seems to only care about saying no to me." He shrugged off criticism over his unilateral executive actions as personal, telling a Dallas audience, "Maybe it's just me they don't like."

Well, boo hoo. Most of us can still recall that Bush's critics — including then-Senator Obama — didn't much like him either. They routinely derided him as an incompetent after Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq civil war in 2006, claimed that he wanted to impose the "unitary executive" as president (a threat to the balance of powers that Democrats curiously forgot after 2009), and hounded him for asking for resignations from a handful of U.S. attorneys, demanding accountability from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and demanding an investigation of the White House itself. Yet even that didn't stop Bush from working with a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass a budget that same year, and to deal with issues related to the war in Iraq, or to revamp the military-commissions system for detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Obama, on the other hand, has mostly moped after losing the House in the 2010 midterms. Like most politicians, Obama likes to fashion opposition arguments into straw men. Most politicians use that as a strategy to leverage public opinion. Obama has used it to ignore half of Congress. His detachment has become legendary; while the border crisis festered, Obama shrugged off demands to visit the border as an unnecessary "photo op." Instead, Obama played pool with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — for the cameras! — and attended fundraisers in Dallas and Austin without traveling to the southernmost part of Texas even once.

It's not just Republicans noticing that Obama doesn't seem to want to work much, either. The New York Times profiled Obama as "a restless president" who eschews spending time with Congress to instead dine with the intellectual elite. "Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?" Obama replied to suggestions that he should spend more quality time with one of the leaders of the opposition. The Times report suggests that the last meals he's had with Republican leadership was in 2013, and he's not interested in having any more.

America's allies are also wondering where Obama is. Former German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that Obama seems completely disengaged, even with the espionage crisis between the two key allies. Obama, Guttenberg said, is "not seemingly capable to communicate properly on an eye-to-eye level with other heads of state." Instead of proactively contacting Angela Merkel after the exposure of NSA material and again when the data on phone tapping the German Chancellor's phone hit the headlines, Obama never bothered to pick up the phone and consult with Merkel. Merkel had to call Obama after the cell-phone revelation, and the exposure of a U.S. mole in German intelligence was the last straw. The expulsion of a CIA station chief last week was necessitated by Obama's lack of engagement, Guttenberg said, "because there was no reaction in the last couple of months from Washington."

Add this to the insistence that Obama knew nothing about the ghastly fraud within the VA, and the professions of shock at the collapse of Iraq, and the American ship of state looks rudderless. Almost a month ago, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that voter assessment of Obama's competency put him below Bush at nearly the same point in his presidency, and that a majority of 54 percent had no confidence in Obama's leadership. Chuck Todd noted at the time that this poll result meant, "essentially, the public is saying your presidency is over."

Obama wants the increasingly disenchanted public to believe that criticism of his actions have no basis in reality, that they are entirely personal attacks. To paraphrase The Godfather, though, poll results show that it's business, not personal — and Obama looks as though he's not interested in doing business with Capitol Hill, or taking care of business anywhere else.

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