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MARGARET WENTE

It’s all breaking bad for Obama Add to ...

Barack Obama should try to enjoy his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard for as long as possible. A swaggering governor from Texas (yes, another one) is about to eat his lunch.

Until this week, next year’s election was still his to lose. The Republicans couldn’t field a decent candidate. Michele Bachmann is too crazy. Sarah Palin has peaked. Mitt Romney, the only one who seems even slightly qualified, is as electrifying as a slab of tofu. Everyone agrees that Mr. Obama is a major disappointment. But at least he’s trying hard, and he’s likeable.

Rick Perry is likeable, too. The handsome three-term governor (they call him Governor Goodhair) has swiped Mr. Obama’s rhetoric of hope. As Mr. Obama discussed the finer points of cattle manure with Midwestern farmers this week, Mr. Perry announced his run for the presidency and released a devastating campaign ad. Of all the jobs created lately in the U.S., 40 per cent of them are in Texas. On top of that, the guy looks fabulous in cowboy chaps.

The Perry-Obama race (if it turns out that way) would be a contest between two starkly different visions of how to save America. The Perry vision is to unleash the forces of private enterprise through low taxes, less regulation and dramatically smaller government. “I’ll work every day to try to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can,” he vows. The Obama vision (which he plans to reveal in September, as soon as his advisers can think one up) probably will involve big-government job-creation schemes dreamed up by a bunch of wise people in Washington.

Mr. Perry “occupies the cultural and intellectually empty heartland of the Republican Party,” wrote Richard Cohen, a liberal pundit, in The Washington Post. “He vows to diminish Washington’s influence – a conservative applause line but a moronic policy.”

Moronic or not, it’s a message that resonates across America. Most Americans have lost their trust in the folks in Washington. Eighty-five per cent of them think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Seventy-three per cent doubt the government can solve their economic problems – up from 41 per cent a decade ago. In their view, it’s the folks in Washington (and their reckless buddies on Wall Street) who’ve wrecked the country.

This isn’t just a Tea Party sentiment. It’s the most important theme in American politics today, and it’s a major reason why Mr. Obama got elected in the first place. It’s also the reason why he’s likely to get unelected next time. Americans will keep throwing out incumbents until someone gets it right.

When Mr. Perry trash-talked Ben Bernanke this week, suggesting that printing more money would be “almost treasonous,” all right-thinking Americans were appalled. You can’t say things like that about the chairman of the Federal Reserve! But when you strip away the inflammatory language, a lot of people think Mr. Perry had a point.

One of them is David Stockman, the former Reagan administration official famous for blowing the whistle on the bloating U.S. debt back in the 1980s. Mr. Stockman says the Fed’s policy of exceptionally low interest rates will further ruin the economy because it will encourage rampant Wall Street speculation, while punishing savers and low-income people trying to buy food and fuel. He predicts that, when the current tax breaks and stimulus money expire, the U.S. will face “the mother of all Keynesian contractions.”

Mr. Perry makes liberals shudder because, unlike, say, Ms. Bachmann, they think he can win. Among other things, he has professed his belief in prayer as a cure for drought. They’re doing their best to blow holes in his job-creation claims, arguing that many of the jobs he’s created are lousy ones, and that he stole a lot of jobs from other states.

Still, there’s a reason Texas has been voted the best state in which to do business. It’s highly functional – unlike California, where a combination of high taxes, bloated public-sector unions, intrusive regulation and high unemployment has brought the state to the point of bankruptcy. Texas now has more Fortune 500 headquarters than any other U.S. state.

Poor Mr. Obama. Most of his problems aren’t his fault. The messes he inherited took decades to create. Waves of new technology and globalization have shaken the economy to its roots. The employment problems are scarily profound. “Our labour force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace,” says Bill Gross, founder of the world’s largest bond fund, Pimco. In his view, “neither party has an awareness of the why or the wherefores of how to put America back to work again.”

Whatever schemes his technocrats come up with, there’s no chance Mr. Obama will be able to fix the job crisis by election day – or even put a dent in it. As Fareed Zakaria points out this week in Time, 40 per cent of all the jobs created in the U.S. since 1990 were in government and health care – sectors that will necessarily have to shrink, not grow. Meantime, cash-rich corporations are refusing to create new jobs because they have no idea what will happen next.

Barack Obama can’t walk on water. To a large extent, he’s a prisoner of fate. These times need a great man, and he is merely a good one. And now he’s acquired the most devastating label of all: President Wimp – someone who not only has no answers but lacks the killer instinct to strike back at his opponents. So don’t be surprised to see another Texas cowboy in the White House before long. He’s selling hope. And that’s what people desperately want.

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