Tuesday’s stunning results in the special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts have clearly changed the political landscape, as those that monitor American politics have rightly observed. As a result, the whole of the President’s agenda is potentially on life support if not outright flat lining. That’s probably true, but the question remains: how did this individual, perhaps the most cerebral, deliberative man to hold the office in a generation or more, as we were regularly told last year, stumble into a series of political mistakes that resulted in the castration of his mandate in less than one year? The heretical answer is that Obama was not that bright to begin with.
In an interview with Oprah, the President gave himself a letter grade for his first year in office (a B+ if you missed it). This was a mistake, not that he gave himself a relatively reserved and yet satisfactory grade, but that he answered the question at all. Such a substantive response only gives strength to your opposition and disappoints your supporters, essentially alienating everyone. This gaff is anecdotal and does not impact events as much as a policy speech or legislative accomplishment would have, but it was nevertheless amateurish. It reflected his inexperience and it sucked the air out of the room.
In the first half of 2009 you could not turn on the television, go to a movie or order a Big Mac without being mugged by the ubiquitous image of the President. It became overwhelming by July when Obama again interrupted your regularly scheduled broadcast to inform the nation that the Cambridge police acted “stupidly.” It got to the point that political strategist Karl Rove had to posit that the administration must view the President as an “unalloyed good,” and his presence and involvement in any and all issues is all positive and no negative. His own advisors were publically reacting to what America’s pundits called in chorus “overexposure.” The supply of Obama had increased to the point that the price and demand of the President’s attention went down dramatically. Perhaps to his credit, Obama listened and disappeared. Today there is a deficit. The White House press corps is demanding a press conference; the last being his stellar performance in July. Now, however, the President turns into a hermit and disappears, turning the political narrative over to congress and the editorial class. These are missteps, all of them… Does the President not see that?
Obama then went to New Jersey and Massachusetts to stump for his chosen candidates despite falling poll numbers. America asked, “What could his advisors know that we do not?” “Why would he risk his waning political capital on such a gamble?” “They must have internals that reflect an uptick in… blah, blah, blah.” The reality: no new polls, no internals, no plan. The President felt that he could inject himself into a situation and it would miraculously right itself. In fact, he simply expended political influence with no reward. By going the President could not avoid the inevitable depletion of his image; whether or not these elections were referenda on his efficacy before he went to stump for Corzine and Coakly, they were after he went. Now the President’s stock is down and it will be a surprise if he finds a congressional ally stalwart enough to pass any legislation, ambitious or otherwise. Who is sycophant enough to suggest that this was all part of the plan? These are mistakes, and rank amateur at that. What happened to the genius of our time?
Now health care is in danger in the new, post-Massachusetts America. In the antediluvian world of 2009, there may have been something to the argument that the American people would learn to love the health bill after it was passed. Even if this logic was flawed, there was enough misleading commentary on the news networks to convince a Washingtonian with self-administered blinders on that the political victory health care reform would be worth the temporary bad will the politics of the bill generated. Now, however, the screams of “can you hear us now,” from Beacon Hill of all places, cannot be ignored. How did the President, who commands the national dialogue from the bully pulpit, let the national conversation get away from him? The answer, as obvious as it is painful to admit, is that for all the President’s education and natural aptitude, he is no genius. He isn’t even a reasonable facsimile; he is decidedly average. Capra’s Mr. Smith can be an effective Senator but, it would seem, not President.
For the entirety of the Bush Presidency, Republicans were treated to the prejudice masquerading as analysis that George W. had the cognitive abilities of a paramecium. The perennial narrative I grew up with was that Republicans are evil or dumb, and the most effective among them (Reagan, Bush, etc.) are both. The narrative is finally on the ropes. We were sanctimoniously told that January 20th, 2009 ushered in a new era of smart government with an academician at the helm of the country. Those of us that cheered the country’s smart decision to elect a smart President should be smart enough to recognize when they are wrong. It would also be soul cleansing to admit it, but I am not holding my breath.