This week, two points in an emerging pointillist picture of a White House leaking support—not the support of voters, though polls there show steady decline, but in two core constituencies, Washington’s Democratic-journalistic establishment, and what might still be called the foreign-policy establishment.
From journalist Elizabeth Drew, a veteran and often sympathetic chronicler of Democratic figures, a fiery denunciation of—and warning for—the White House. In a piece in Politico on the firing of White House counsel Greg Craig, Ms. Drew reports that while the president was in Asia last week, “a critical mass of influential people who once held big hopes for his presidency began to wonder whether they had misjudged the man.” They once held “an unromantically high opinion of Obama,” and were key to his rise, but now they are concluding that the president isn’t “the person of integrity and even classiness they had thought.”
She scored “the Chicago crowd,” which she characterized as “a distressingly insular and small-minded West Wing team.” The White House, Ms. Drew says, needs adult supervision—“an older, wiser head, someone with a bit more detachment.”
As I read Ms. Drew’s piece, I was reminded of something I began noticing a few months ago in bipartisan crowds. I would ask Democrats how they thought the president was doing. In the past they would extol, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, his virtues. Increasingly, they would preface their answer with, “Well, I was for Hillary.” This in turn reminded me of a surprising thing I observe among loyal Democrats in informal settings and conversations: No one loves Barack Obama. Half the American people say they support him, and Democrats are still with him. But there were Bill Clinton supporters who really loved him. George W. Bush had people who loved him. A lot of people loved Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. But no one seems to love Mr. Obama now; they’re not dazzled and head over heels. That’s gone away. He himself seems a fairly chilly customer; perhaps in turn he inspires chilly support. But presidents need that rock—bottom 20% who, no matter what’s happening—war, unemployment—adore their guy, have complete faith in him, and insist that you love him, too.
They’re the hard 20 a president always keeps. Nixon kept them! Obama probably has a hard 20 too, but whatever is keeping them close, it doesn’t seem to be love.
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Just as stinging as Elizabeth Drew on domestic matters was Leslie Gelb on Mr. Obama and foreign policy in the Daily Beast. Mr. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and fully plugged into the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, wrote this week that the president’s Asia trip suggested “a disturbing amateurishness in managing America’s power.” The president’s Afghanistan review has been “inexcusably clumsy,” Mideast negotiations have been “fumbling.” So unsuccessful was the trip that Mr. Gelb suggested Mr. Obama take responsibility for it “as President Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs.”
He added that rather than bowing to emperors—Mr. Obama “seems to do this stuff spontaneously and inexplicably”—he should begin to bow to “the voices of experience” in Washington.
When longtime political observers start calling for wise men, a president is in trouble.
It also raises a distressing question: Who are the wise men and women now? Who are the Robert Lovetts, Chip Bohlens and Robert Strausses who can came in to help a president in trouble right his ship? America seems short of wise men, or short on those who are universally agreed to be wise. I suppose Vietnam was the end of that, but establishments exist for a reason, and it is hard for a great nation to function without the presence of a group of “the oldest and wisest” who can not only give sound advice but help engineer how that advice will be reported and received.
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Mr Obama is in a hard place. Health care hangs over him, and if he is lucky he will lose a close vote in the Senate. The common wisdom that he can’t afford to lose is exactly wrong—he can’t afford to win with such a poor piece of legislation. He needs to get the issue behind him, vow to fight another day, and move on. Afghanistan hangs over him, threatening the unity of his own Democratic congressional base. There is the growing perception of incompetence, of the inability to run the machine of government. This, with Americans, is worse than Obama’s rebranding as a leader who governs from the left. Americans demand baseline competence. If he comes to be seen as Jimmy Carter was, that the job was bigger than the man, that will be the end.
Which gets us back to the bow.
In a presidency, a picture or photograph becomes iconic only when it seems to express something people already think. When Gerald Ford was spoofed for being physically clumsy, it took off. The picture of Ford losing his footing and tumbling as he came down the steps of Air Force One became a symbol. There was a reason, and it wasn’t that he was physically clumsy. He was not only coordinated but graceful. He’d been a football star at the University of Michigan and was offered contracts by the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.
But the picture took off because it expressed the growing public view that Ford’s policies were bumbling and stumbling. The picture was iconic of a growing political perception.
The Obama bowing pictures are becoming iconic, and they would not be if they weren’t playing off a growing perception. If the pictures had been accompanied by headlines from Asia saying “Tough Talks Yield Big Progress” or “Obama Shows Muscle in China,” the bowing pictures might be understood this way: “He Stoops to Conquer: Canny Obama shows elaborate deference while he subtly, toughly, quietly advances his nation’s interests.”
But that’s not how the pictures were received or will be remembered.
It is true that Mr. Obama often seems not to have a firm grasp of—or respect for—protocol, of what has been done before and why, and of what divergence from the traditional might imply. And it is true that his political timing was unfortunate. When a great nation is feeling confident and strong, a surprising presidential bow might seem gracious. When it is feeling anxious, a bow will seem obsequious.
The Obama bowing pictures are becoming iconic not for those reasons, however, but because they express a growing political perception, and that is that there is something amateurish about this presidency, something too ad hoc and highly personalized about it, something . . . incompetent, at least in its first year.
It is hard to be president, and White Houses under pressure take refuge in thoughts that become mantras. When the previous White House came under mounting criticism from 2005 through ‘08, they comforted themselves by thinking, They criticized Lincoln, too. You could see their minds whirring: Lincoln was criticized, Lincoln was great, ergo we are great. But of course just because they say you’re stupid doesn’t mean you’re Lincoln.
One senses the Obama people are doing the Lincoln too, and adding to it the consoling thought that this is only the first year, we’ve got three years to go, we can change perceptions, don’t worry.
But they should worry. You can get tagged, typed and pegged your first year. Gerald Ford did, and Ronald Reagan too, more happily. The first year is when indelible impressions are made and iconic photos emerge.