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From health care to the Gulf spill, the President is getting the policy right but not the politics (Pool/Reuters, Getty Images)
From health care to the Gulf spill, the President is getting the policy right but not the politics (Pool/Reuters, Getty Images)

Globe Essay

No Obama misstep goes unpunished Add to ...

When he seems cerebral, his rivals say he lacks emotion. When he seems calm, his opponents criticize him for lacking a sense of outrage. When he expresses outrage (calling the corporate blame game in the oil spill a "ridiculous spectacle"), the Greek chorus deems him intemperate. Barack Obama - once fluid and fluent, unruffled and unflappable - is on the defensive.

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Part of that is the natural evolution of a man in a demanding office in a remorseless era. The presidency may be the heart of the American political system, but even in good times, its occupants never cease being targets. "If to be head of Hell is as hard as what I have to undergo here," said Mr. Obama's hero, Abraham Lincoln, "I could find it in my heart to pity Satan himself." That was a century and a half before cable talk shows.

Or, as Lyndon Johnson, who until he became president was regarded as a master of the political arts, once remarked, "Cast your bread upon the waters and the sharks will get it."

But the surprising thing about Mr. Obama's presidency, which follows one of the most remarkable ascents in American political history, is not that he gets the policy wrong, as Mr. Johnson did, perhaps with the big-spending Great Society, almost certainly in Vietnam. It is that in his first 17 months in office Mr. Obama repeatedly gets the politics wrong. For if he showed anything in a bruising primary fight with Hillary Rodham Clinton and then a tough general-election battle with John McCain, it was that Barack Obama had a political instinct as fine-tuned as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy.

A DESTINY-KISSED IMAGE

Like so many presidents before him - General Dwight Eisenhower and five-term governor Bill Clinton are prime modern examples - Mr. Obama's prepresidential successes provide a dramatic contrast with his White House difficulties. Indeed, in the past two months, several books, including the remarkable volume The Bridge, by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, have painted portraits of a destiny-kissed Barack Obama that seem at odds with the man captured on television, described in newspapers and pilloried on cable and the Internet.

Where once Mr. Obama attracted comparisons with Lincoln, the most devastating analogy in modern American politics is now being applied to the President. Repeatedly this month he is being compared to Jimmy Carter, who struggled for credibility in the capital, then was portrayed as feckless in the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979 and stained his presidency so permanently that the mere invocation of his name is an act of scornful reproach almost a third of a century later.

There is still plenty of time to change the key, the tempo and the dynamics of the Obama ascendancy; at this point in his White House years, Mr. Reagan was deep into a recession he couldn't plausibly blame on his predecessor (an disadvantage Mr. Obama does not have) and his Republican Party was facing a heavy loss of more than two dozen seats in the House of Representatives in the 1982 midterm congressional elections (a prospect Mr. Obama faces).

Right now, Mr. Obama's approval ratings are at a tepid 47 per cent, according to a Zogby International poll released this week that also found 54 per cent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. If things don't turn around in 2010 and 2011, commentators and historians very likely will look at two important turning points that severely damaged the Obama presidency. One (the overhaul of health care in the United States ) comes from a moment of great achievement, the other (the uncontained oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) from a moment of great failure - and the irony is that the achievement was his and the failure was someone else's.

SUCCESS AT HIGH COST

First, the achievement. He succeeded where a string of presidents going back as far as Harry Truman more than 60 years ago failed in one of the signature goals of American liberalism: winning universal health-care coverage for Americans, who saw their closest allies, Canada and Great Britain, offer medicare and the National Health Service, respectively, to their citizens.

To be sure, Mr. Obama's achievement came at a high cost. The totemic predecessors of Obamacare, Franklin Roosevelt's Social Security and Johnson's Medicare (which, unlike the Canadian system known by that name, is offered primarily to the elderly), were passed with support of both Republicans and Democrats, ensuring their political survival for generations. Indeed, so established a part of American culture is Social Security that no mainstream leader since Barry Goldwater, who lost 44 states in a 1964 landslide, has dared to advocate dismantling it or making substantial adjustments in Medicare, which was passed in 1965.

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