At a certain point, a president must own a presidency. For George W. Bush that point came eight months in, when 9/11 happened. From that point on, the presidency—all his decisions, all the credit and blame for them—was his. The American people didn’t hold him responsible for what led up to 9/11, but they held him responsible for everything after it. This is part of the reason the image of him standing on the rubble of the twin towers, bullhorn in hand, on Sept.14, 2001, became an iconic one. It said: I’m owning it.
Mr. Bush surely knew from the moment he put the bullhorn down that he would be judged on everything that followed. And he has been. Early on, the American people rallied to his support, but Americans are practical people. They will support a leader when there is trouble, but there’s an unspoken demand, or rather bargain: We’re behind you, now fix this, it’s yours.
President Obama, in office a month longer than Bush was when 9/11 hit, now owns his presidency. Does he know it? He too stands on rubble, figuratively speaking—a collapsed economy, high and growing unemployment, two wars. Everyone knows what he’s standing on. You can almost see the smoke rising around him. He’s got a bullhorn in his hand every day.
It’s his now. He gets the credit and the blame. How do we know this? The American people are telling him. You can see it in the polls. That’s what his falling poll numbers are about. “It’s been almost a year, you own this. Fix it.”
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The president doesn’t seem to like this moment. Who would? He and his men and women have returned to referring to what they “inherited.” And what they inherited was, truly, terrible: again, a severe economic crisis and two wars. But their recent return to this theme is unbecoming. Worse, it is politically unpersuasive. It sounds defensive, like a dodge.
The president said last week, at a San Francisco fund-raiser, that he’s busy with a “mop,” “cleaning up somebody else’s mess,” and he doesn’t enjoy “somebody sitting back and saying, ‘You’re not holding the mop the right way.’” Later, in New Orleans, he groused that reporters are always asking “Why haven’t you solved world hunger yet?” His surrogates and aides, in appearances and talk shows, have taken to remembering, sometimes at great length, the dire straits we were in when the presidency began.
This is not a sign of confidence. Nor were the president’s comments to a New York fund-raiser this week. Democrats, he said to the Democratic audience, are “an opinionated bunch.” They always have a lot of thoughts and views. Republicans, on the other hand—“the other side”—aren’t really big on independent thinking. “They just kinda sometimes do what they’re told. Democrats, ya’ll thinkin’ for yourselves.” It is never a good sign when the president gets folksy, dropping his g’s, because he is by nature not a folksy g-dropper but a coolly calibrating intellectual who is always trying to guess, as most politicians do, what normal people think. When Mr. Obama gets folksy he isn’t narrowing his distance from his audience but underlining it. He shouldn’t do this.
But the statement that Republicans just do what they’re told was like his famous explanation of unhappy voters are people who “cling to guns or religion.” (What comes over him at fund-raisers?) Both statements speaks of a political misjudgment of his opponents and his situation. They show a misdiagnosis of the opposition that is politically tin-eared. Politicians looking to win don’t patronize those they’re trying to win over.
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But the point on the We Inherited a Terrible Situation and It’s Not Our Fault argument is, again, that it is worse than unbecoming. It is unpersuasive.
How do we know this? Through the polls. In all of the major surveys, the president’s popularity has gone down the past few months. A Gallup Daily Tracking Poll out this week reported Mr. Obama’s job approval dropped nine points during the third quarter of this year, that is between July 1 and Sept. 30, when it fell from 62% to 53%. It was the biggest such drop Gallup has ever measured for an elected president during the same period of his term. A Fox News poll out Thursday showed support for the president’s policies falling below 50% for the first time. Ominously for him, independents are peeling off. In 2006 and 2008 independents looked like Democrat. They were angry and frustrated by the wars, they sought to rebuke the Bush White House. Now those independents look like Republicans. They worry about joblessness, debts and deficits.
The White House sees the falling support. Thus the reminder: We faced an insuperable challenge, we’re mopping up somebody else’s mess.
The Democratic Party too sees the falling support, and is misunderstanding it. The great question they debated last week was whether the president is tough enough: Does he come across as too weak? It is true, as the cliché has it, that it’s helpful for a president to be both revered and feared. But this president is not weak, that’s not his problem. He willed himself into the presidency with an adroit reading of the lay of the land, brought together and dominated all the constituent pieces of victory, showed and shows impressive self-discipline, seems in general to stick to a course once he’s chosen it, though arguably especially when he’s wrong. His decision to let Congress write a health-care bill may yield at least the appearance of victory. And if Mr. Obama isn’t twisting arms like LBJ, and then giving just an extra little jerk to snap the rotator cuff just for fun, the case can be made that day by day he’s moving the Democrats of Congress in the historic direction he desires. All his adult life he’s played the long game, which takes patience and skill.
The problem isn’t his personality, it’s his policies. His problem isn’t what George W. Bush left but what he himself has done. It is a problem of political judgment, of putting forward bills that were deeply flawed or off-point. Bailouts, the stimulus package, cap-and-trade; turning to health care at the exact moment in history when his countrymen were turning their concerns to the economy, joblessness, debt and deficits—all of these reflect a misreading of the political terrain. They are matters of political judgment, not personality. (Republicans would best heed this as they gear up for 2010: Don’t hit him, hit his policies. That’s where the break with the people is occurring.)
The result of all this is flagging public support, a drop in the polls, and independents peeling off.
In this atmosphere, with these dynamics, Mr. Obama’s excuse-begging and defensiveness won’t work.
Everyone knows he was handed horror. They want him to fix it.
At some point, you own your presidency. At some point it’s your rubble. At some point the American people tell you it’s yours. The polls now, with the presidential approval numbers going down and the disapproval numbers going up: That’s the American people telling him.