Barack Obama seemed remarkably upbeat the other day as he left for his first formal vacation as president. It's true that this is one of the coolest cats the world has ever seen, always apparently comfortable in his own skin, unflappable, dignified, whatever the winds swirling around him.
But that doesn't mean he's always right, and there are plenty of reasons to fear that he's very wrong if he doesn't think he's in big, deep trouble.
It's hard when discussing American politics not to want to break into constant superlatives, as in "the craziest" this or "the most extreme" that. I saw a clip the other day of conservative bloviator Charles Krauthammer asserting as a matter of indisputable fact that if Obama lost the health-care battle his administration was over. Full stop. Over. May as well turn the keys of the White House over to Sarah Palin. Yet it's barely half a year since his inauguration and 3½ to go. This is as preposterous a comment as is conceivable - you see, superlatives are already inescapable - yet his fellow pundits on the panel all mindlessly agreed.
What is true is that the U.S. President and the presidency are in great jeopardy, but not from the health-care battle as such. There are an abundance of dire warning signs.
First, the number of threatened assassinations is apparently several times greater than ever before, although the Secret Service seems strangely blasé about the weapons it allows people to carry at Obama's meetings. Would Clint Eastwood have permitted guys to attend carrying pistols, semi-automatic assault rifles, and signs saying "It's time to water the tree of liberty"? The allusion is to the revolutionary slogan coined by that old subversive Tom Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots and tyrants." In practice, since Jefferson, only right-wingers can get away with such comments, because they're the patriots. If you're progressive and dare try, you're on the side of tyranny and terrorism, and treated accordingly.
Second, many millions of right-wing Americans are so viscerally hostile to Obama as to be barely under control. These range from "moderate" conservatives to radical conservatives to out-of-their-tree nutbar conservatives to apocalyptic Christian conservatives to violence-prone anti-gay and anti-choice cultural conservatives to plain old racists who can't stomach a black man becoming president. Remember that fully 46 per cent of all Americans voted against Obama, even knowing that Sarah Palin had a real crack at inheriting the presidency from an aging John McCain. And large numbers have never and will never accept the right of Barack Obama to be their president.
We forget, I sense, how bitter, extreme and hysterical his opponents were during that campaign. Remember their violent and menacing language - "Terrorist! Treason! Off with his head!" This wasn't just throw-away rhetoric. Sarah Palin's call to "real Americans" to oppose Obama - who obviously was not a real American - was not mere campaign rabble-rousing. It was what millions believed about this ultra-sophisticated black man - an uppity you-know-what, as far as they were concerned.
The campaign against a minimally progressive health-care plan is the opportunity to lash out for that huge number of hate-filled Americans who will never accept this man as their president. They challenge his American birthright. They carry weapons to his meetings. They call him a Nazi or Communist and paint toothbrush moustaches on his photos. They compare him to Hitler and Stalin. Here's Pastor Rick Joyner on alleged health-care changes: "Hitler and Stalin would have loved to have a means such as this for dispatching the millions they killed." They want him out, and they're not too fussy about how.
The mob is inflamed by the extraordinarily powerful and irresponsible right-wing media stars - Limbaugh (compares Obama to Hitler), Glen Beck (Obama has "a deep-seated hatred for white people"), and of course Bill O'Reilly - who gleefully peddle the most outrageous lies: death panels for grannies, anyone? Euthanasia on demand? Emulating the Nazi program to murder the disabled? Meanwhile, not-quite-as-psychotic conservatives, including Republicans whom Obama still insists on trying to woo, use the same reckless language and raise the same phony accusations, consciously pouring oil on the flames that threaten to conflagrate the entire presidency. It's terrifying to think that these immoderate and irresponsible conservatives now control the Republican Party of the United States.
And behind them lie a virtual horde of lobbyists bound and determined to oppose almost every piece of legislation Obama presents. Under Bush, this army owned the government, often literally running the bureaucracy and writing the legislation. Now, with the thousands of Republican lobbyists joined by an ever-increasing number of Democrats, eager to cash in on lobbyists' big fast bucks, it's hard for Obama to get co-operation from any Republican politician or from many of his own Democrats.
Despite the deepening disillusionment of many liberals and sane centrists, for now Obama is their man and they know they need to take on the escalating onslaught from the right. It's instructive to see how they do so. Just as Obama makes nice with Republican politicians who slander him in the most outrageous and cynical ways, so Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert reflect the difference in strategies between liberals and reactionaries south of the border.
Where the one side publicly brandishes semi-automatic assault rifles and incitements to insurrection, Colbert and Stewart respond with stilettos and adorable satire. They're funnier, and enjoy themselves a lot, and we liberal fans share their self-satisfaction as they mug for the cameras after cleverly exposing the latest conservative hypocrisy or lie. The little-known truth is that shrewd conservatives cheer them on, realizing how ineffective they ultimately are. They know the Rambo crowd can't be turned back one sharp, deft cut at a time.
Sure it's too early to write the obituary of this administration. But it's not too early to be terrified by what's afoot. And before you accuse me of being paranoid, I'm not the one who believes Barack Obama is a foreigner who wants to kill American grandparents and disabled children.
Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national campaign director and author of The Betrayal of Africa