This summer has cemented it: Barack Obama is a lame duck. His administration is a failure. Democrats know it. And they only have months to act.
Their president has lost the support of Wall Street donors. He has driven high-powered Democrats to go public with humiliating criticism. One in four Democrats have told CNN they want a different nominee.
What’s the problem? In a hugely influential New York Times editorial, psychologist Drew Westen lamented that Obama’s problem is himself. “Like most Americans,” he wrote, “at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue.”
There is still time for Democrats to fix this — but only if they force their leader not to seek a second term. As a president, Barack Obama is doomed. He is doomed now, doomed on Election Day and doomed even if he wins, until the day he leaves the White House.
Where to begin? For starters, Obama has no true constituency. Stephen Moore, writing in The Wall Street Journal, claimed last week that “the increasingly frustrated left” concedes the president has “a virtual lock on the crucial black vote.” But top black leaders feel ignored at best and betrayed at worst — and they’ve said so at their own town hall series.
No one wants to admit that the president’s white and African heritage — non-African-American, that is — matters. It mattered when he parlayed it as a candidate into a successful-feeling act of racial transcendence and healing. It matters now as we strain to understand his inability to connect at a gut political level with black America.
Obama is not really a product of the black experience. He is not really a product of the white experience. An optimist would say he is a product of the American experience, but the emotionally neutral judgment is that — politically, at a minimum — he is a man from nowhere.
And as often happens with presidents at momentous times, his character has colored his country. Increasingly, America seems like it is going nowhere. Increasingly, America seems like nowhere. Much of this is a consequence of the brittleness, drift and rot of our most powerful institutions. But the significant part that matters to Obama is the result of Obama himself — his attitude, his words and the style and substance of his response as a president to this protracted crisis.
Democrats are now nervously, angrily asking themselves what Obama can do to seize anew the imagination of his country before his fate is sealed some point between now and Election Day. E.J. Dionne begs for something “imaginative.” Eugene Robinson cries that the president’s “promised jobs plan needs to be unrealistic and unreasonable, at the very least. If he can crank it all the way up to unimaginable, that would be even better.”
Alas, it is unimaginable that this, or anything like it, will ever happen — before the election or afterward, and whether or not Obama wins.
Here is a president who has dragged his party through a tormented health care reform process, only to land it in the courts. He has paid lip service to unions, and cozied up to corporate interests while taking cheap shots at their most trivial political advantages. He has dribbled out a thin gruel of socialistic remarks about who needs their own money and who doesn’t — while repeatedly and publicly conflating the likes of himself and Warren Buffet with Americans laboring to build both wealth and families.
No, the only truly bold and inspirational thing that Barack Obama has ever done is run for president. It is a trick he has already proven himself incapable of repeating. Even a re-elected Obama will be a cipher and an albatross, just as George W. Bush dragged the Republican Party deeper into discredit the greater the pile of “political capital” he had to spend.
Only, with Obama, the disillusion will run far deeper than anything to wrack the embittered right. Republicans have their cherished fantasies, but conservatives do not run on dreams the way liberals do. The failure of Obama to realize even the 99-cent-store version of his campaign’s promise is agonizing enough to a left primed to lash out in despair. The failure of Obama to do this in the immediate wake of Bush’s own textbook disaster is unforgivable.
It’s not just that Barack Obama seems willing to diminish every liberal’s dreams but his own. It’s that he’s tarnishing his party’s reputation just at the moment of its once-assured triumph. Having owned up to their disappointment, Democrats must now decide whether to go to the mat to reelect the president anyway. Without their total support, he’s sunk. This, more than any mumbo-jumbo, is why Rick Perry is striking fear into the hearts of Democrats.
In The Daily Beast last month, Leslie Bennetts spoke for all Democrats when she warned that “[h]owever unlikely a Democratic challenger might seem at present, Obama would be foolish not to heed the deep dissatisfaction represented by such speculation […]. Given the abundance of devastating economic news lately, he would also do well to remember the Clintons’ rallying cry from the 1992 election.”
But like many, Bennetts cannot say how Obama can heed that dissatisfaction. Fire Jeffrey Immelt? Hire Warren Buffett? Perhaps he can float an infrastructure bank, or bribe businesses to hire veterans. Obamacare has no second act. Americans have no stomach for the full Obama. And his competence to govern is incommensurate both with the reality of our crisis and his own vision of justice.
That’s a hard fact to swallow. But if Democrats don’t heed the lesson of Reagan vs. Ford, or remember Ted Kennedy’s rallying pledges from the 1980 convention, the fact will swallow them. Hillary now is just like Teddy then. Only, instead of Chappaquiddick, she’s got a steel-plated record of discipline and control — that her own president doesn’t have, and never will.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.