Barack Obama's presidential administration has been criticized for lacking sophistication in foreign affairs, lacking vision in domestic affairs, lacking collegiality in congressional relations and lacking sensitivity in political endeavours. But now the President and his administration are facing a new, even more stinging critique: They lack competence.
For weeks, the administration has been in full, dramatic upheaval. There was the invasion of Syria that was called off. There were the talks with Iran that broke off. There was the government closing that endangered the country's credit ratings. There was the beginning of a new round of negotiations on spending and revenues.
And then came the disastrous rollout of the health-care plan, followed by the news that an oft-repeated presidential pledge no longer held, and finally last week's furious backpedalling to make things right if not exactly to right the ship.
How bad is the Obama competence meltdown?
When Mr. Obama announced his decision to permit Americans to keep their current health-care plans for an additional year after all, the Financial Times' brief 11-paragraph account included these words: salvage, embattled, contrition, concession, on the defensive, complicated, admitted, failure (twice), eclipsed, problem (twice), humiliating, angry, fed up, botched, challenges (twice), flaws, paled.
This is not a vocabulary of competence, and (to employ some of those very words here, rearranging them as if they were small fragments on the refrigerator) the challenge now is for the embattled President to overcome the problems inherent in his complicated but botched health-care plan, to soothe the angry and fed-up American public, and to salvage his presidency. A less kind commentator might arrange those words more savagely, but this version will do.
So will this, almost certainly the most dramatic a statement of contrition in presidential history since the Bill Clinton years: "We fumbled the rollout on this health care law. Am I going to have to do some work to rebuild confidence around some of our initiatives? Yeah."
The magnitude of the political crisis Team Obama faces now cannot be overstated. The public long ago abandoned hope that the President might be as strategic in foreign affairs as Richard Nixon, as accomplished in diplomacy as George H. W. Bush, as tough-minded in congressional negotiations as Lyndon Johnson, as empathetic in human relations as Bill Clinton.
For a long while Americans seemed content with the President they had. The RealClearPolitics composite poll findings in mid-November last year, a kind of Dow Jones Industrial Average for politics, showed Mr. Obama with an approval rating 4.1 points greater than his disapproval rating – not great but good enough to get him re-elected and to set him gliding toward his second inauguration.
But questions of competence now have robbed him of public support. That same RealClearPolitics composite now shows a 14.2-point gap – in the other direction.
American politics is full of swift reversals; only weeks ago the President was basking in triumph for out-waiting and outwitting congressional Republicans in the struggle over the government closing. Now those same Republicans – pilloried for their extremism and their intransigence in insisting on changes in, if not outright repeal of, Obamacare – have the offensive and he is on the defensive.
In the same spirit, it is, of course, possible that Mr. Obama will be able, as he put it at a Wall Street Journal forum Tuesday, to "remarket and rebrand" the health-care overhaul, though he conceded "that will be challenging in this political environment." It is possible, too, that government computer magicians will fix the Obamacare website and that the four million people in 28 states who have received letters saying their health policies have been cancelled will forgive and forget.
Possible, but not likely. The danger for Mr. Obama is that his notion of an overhaul of the country's immigration laws – once an administration priority, now a convenient means of changing the topic of conversation – is not exactly moving through congressional waters like a watermelon greased with Vaseline. America's allies likewise do not seem soothed by assurances the United States will stop spying on their political leaders and their corporate captains.
John F. Kennedy, celebrated this week in commemorations leading to the 50th anniversary of his assassination, once described the presidency as "the most unpleasant job in existence," and right now Mr. Obama is finding out the sad and sobering truth in that statement.
But it was Kennedy's immediate Democratic predecessor, Harry Truman, whose perspective Mr. Obama needs right now. "Being a president is like riding a tiger," the 33rd president said. "A man has to keep riding or be swallowed."
The President may indeed ride out this storm. But, as he has discovered, charm will not do it.
Above all, Mr. Obama has portrayed himself as a man undeterred by difficulty. He now has to return to his own roots, which is to say the cool man of competence. Obamacare, the remainder of his term, his historical legacy – they all depend on it. If he is to ride into history as more than the first black president he must prove above all that he was competent to be president.