Feature

Obama: Has he lost the magic?

Obama’s job-approval rating has sunk to an all-time low of 47 percent.

“The thrill is gone,” said Charles Blow in The New York Times. When he was running for president two years ago, Barack Obama charmed millions of Americans with his stirring rhetoric and “his vision of a happier ever after.” But 17 months into his presidency, “the magic has drained away.” As the economic recovery proceeds with painful slowness, trillion-dollar budget deficits stretch endlessly into the future, and BP’s broken well continues to spew oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Obama’s job-approval rating has sunk to an all-time low of 47 percent. Even among Obama’s “most ardent supporters, there now exists a certain frustration and disappointment.” What does the man believe in? said Richard Cohen in The Washington Post. No one can really tell. In his troubled, fatherless childhood, caught between races, Obama learned to be an emotional enigma, and to rely on his “shimmering intellect.” When a heartfelt expression of empathy or passion is called for, Obama cannot deliver; in his flat speech on the Gulf disaster last week, he could only promise to ask the best experts and scientists to figure things out. But a pragmatic reliance on experts and compromise seems to be his approach to all problems. “Who is this guy? The president seems to stand foursquare for nothing much.”

“Please,” said Steve Kornacki in Salon.com, “spare us the ‘How Obama lost his magic’ columns.” Every president’s popularity drops in his second year in office; since he started out with approval ratings of more than 70 percent, Obama was bound to fall far further than most. His principal problem is that he became president during the most “gruesome economic conditions” we’ve seen since the 1930s, and a bad economy—particularly one with high unemployment—invariably gets blamed on the president. No one’s saying it’s fair, said Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. It wasn’t Obama’s fault that the blowout preventer failed on the Deepwater Horizon rig, either. But a string of disasters is conspiring to make Obama look unlucky, like “a snakebit president,” and American voters—fairly or not—always prefer “leaders on whom the sun shines.” If Obama’s run of bad luck continues, he risks ending up like Jimmy Carter. When oil prices spiked in the 1970s, the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and Iranian militants took 52 Americans hostage in Tehran, Carter looked like a man “at the mercy of forces.” In response, voters made him a one-term president.

Obama’s problem isn’t a sudden run of bad luck, said Mark Steyn in National Review. This would-be emperor never had any clothes. On the campaign trail, the man dazzled the media and liberals with broad, sweeping generalities about some better future. But when confronting real problems like the Gulf spill, all he can offer the country is some robotic encouragement to install “energy-efficient windows.” Mr. Inspiration has turned out to be “a boring technocrat.” For the president’s base, it’s a shock, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Cursed with a core conviction that “any problem, any crisis, can be swiftly solved by strong government,” the Left is stunned that Obama looks so powerless in the face of BP’s gushing well, persistently high unemployment, and the war in Afghanistan. Can’t he just order BP to plug the “damn hole,” and the world to cooperate with his grand vision?

No, and some of us realize that, said Michael Tomasky in Democracy. Yes, some naïve Democrats thought that Obama was the Chosen One—the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—who would “set everything right in seven or eight months, a year tops.” But four years into his presidency, FDR still had an unemployment rate of 25 percent and the New Deal was still a dream. On the way to reshaping the country, FDR suffered many setbacks and swallowed many distasteful compromises with conservative Dixiecrats. The fact is that “progressive change is hard in the United States,” and that when it comes, it comes slowly. Obama truly understands that, said Andrew Sullivan in TheAtlantic.com, and his historical perspective is his greatest asset. During the health-care battle, he refused to surrender to wild swings of public opinion or cries of despair from within his own ranks, and he prevailed. Let’s also not forget that last week, a steely Obama arm-twisted BP into committing $20 billion to clean up the Gulf. With a “lethal and patient strength,” this president gets stuff done, forging steadily ahead in pursuit of what was his goal from the very outset: “very gradual change we can believe in.”

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