Over the past few weeks, Barack Obama has been criticized for the following: He didn’t go to Berlin for the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s coming down. He didn’t make a forceful-enough statement on the 30th anniversary of the U.S. diplomats’ being taken hostage in Iran. He didn’t show sufficient mournfulness, at first, when the Fort Hood shootings took place, and he was namby-pamby about the possibility that the shootings were an act of jihad. He has spent too little time focusing on unemployment. He bowed too deeply before the Japanese Emperor. He allowed the Chinese to block the broadcast of his Shanghai town-hall meeting. He allowed the Chinese President to bar questions at their joint press conference . He didn’t come back with any diplomatic victories from Asia. He allowed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other 9/11 plotters to be tried in the U.S. criminal-justice system rather than by the military. He has dithered too long on Afghanistan. He has devoted too much attention to and given congressional Democrats too much control over health care reform, an issue that is peripheral to a majority of Americans.
And all this has led to a dangerous slippage in the polls, it is said, a sense that his presidential authority is ebbing. See who’s who in Barack Obama’s White House.
As a fully licensed pundit, I have the authority to weigh in here … but I demur. Oh, I could sling opinions about every one of the events cited above some were unfortunate but it would matter only if I could discern a pattern that illuminates Obama’s presidency. The most obvious pattern, however, is the media’s tendency to get overwrought about almost anything. Why, for example, is the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall demolition so crucial that it requires a President’s presence Which recent U.S. President has gotten the Chinese to agree to anything big Was his deep bow indicative of anything other than his physical fitness
Stepping back a bit, I do see a meta pattern that extends over the 40 years since Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy began the drift toward more ideological political parties: Democrats have tough first years in the presidency. Of the past seven Presidents, the two Bushes rank at the top in popularity after one year, while Obama and Bill Clinton rank at the bottom, with Jimmy Carter close by. There is a reason for that. Democrats come to office eager to govern the heck out of the country. They take on impossible issues, like budget-balancing and health care reform. They run into roadblocks from their own unruly ranks as well as from Republicans. They get lost in the details. A tax cut is much easier to explain than a tax increase. A foreign policy based in bluster railing against an “axis of evil” is easier to sell than a foreign policy based in nuance. Of course, external events count a lot: the ratings of Bushes I and II were bolstered, respectively, by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the flattening of the World Trade Center. Reagan’s rating 53% and headed south was dampened by a deepening recession. See TIME’s Person of the Year: Barack Obama
So it is way too early to make pronouncements on Obama’s fate. One pattern that can be limned from the recent overseas controversies is that this President has a tendency to err in the direction of respect toward other countries. This is a witting reaction to the Bush Administration’s tendency to diss our allies and insult or invade our enemies. It is a long game, which will yield results, or not, over time. After a first year spent demonstrating a new comity, Obama has gained the global credibility to get tough on Iran, for example in his second year. But the real evaluation of Obama’s debut must wait for the results of the two biggest problems he’s tackling: his decision on Afghanistan and the congressional attempt to pass health care reform. And even here, it will be difficult to render judgment immediately as difficult as it was to judge Clinton’s decision to spend his political capital on deficit reduction in his 1993 economic plan, a triumph that didn’t become apparent for nearly five years.
The one Asian image that resonates with me isn’t the bow, but the President alone on the Great Wall. That image the noble loner is clearly one the White House wants to project. But it raises the specter of isolation. Most Presidents have a significant other when it comes to policy. Bush Junior had Cheney; Clinton had Hillary; Bush the Elder had James Baker; Nixon had Kissinger. Obama’s conservative critics poke fun at his overweening ego, but I suspect that the President’s need to find an alter ego, an intellectual equal in addition to the First Lady who can challenge his decisions and demeanor , is the biggest adjustment he has to make now.
See pictures of Barack Obama taken by everyday Americans.