One and Done?
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: September 3, 2011
On the razor’s edge of another recession; blocked at every turn by Republicans determined to slice him up at any cost; starting an unexpectedly daunting re-election bid; and puzzling over how to make a prime-time speech about infrastructure and payroll taxes soar, maybe President Obama is wishing that he had thrown the game.
The leader who was once a luminescent, inspirational force is now just a guy in a really bad spot.
His Republican rivals for 2012 have gone to town on the Labor Day weekend news of zero job growth, using the same line of attack Hillary used in 2008: Enough with the big speeches! What about some action?
Polls show that most Americans still like and trust the president; but they may no longer have faith that he’s a smarty-pants who can fix the economy.
Just as Obama miscalculated in 2009 when Democrats had total control of Congress, holding out hope that G.O.P. lawmakers would come around on health care after all but three senators had refused to vote for the stimulus bill; just as he misread John Boehner this summer, clinging like a scorned lover to a dream that the speaker would drop his demanding new inamorata, the Tea Party, to strike a “grand” budget bargain, so the president once more set a trap for himself and gave Boehner the opportunity to dis him on the timing of his jobs speech this week.
Obama’s re-election chances depend on painting the Republicans as disrespectful. So why would the White House act disrespectful by scheduling a speech to a joint session of Congress at the exact time when the Republicans already had a debate planned?
And why is the White House so cocky about Obama as a TV draw against quick-draw Rick Perry? As James Carville acerbically noted, given a choice between watching an Obama speech and a G.O.P. debate, “I’d watch the debate, and I’m not even a Republican.”
The White House caved, of course, and moved to Thursday, because there’s nothing the Republicans say that he won’t eagerly meet halfway.
No. 2 on David Letterman’s Top Ten List of the president’s plans for Labor Day: “Pretty much whatever the Republicans tell him he can do.”
On MSNBC, the anchors were wistfully listening to old F.D.R. speeches, wishing that this president had some of that fight. But Obama can’t turn into F.D.R. for the campaign because he aspires to the class that F.D.R. was a traitor to; and he can’t turn into Harry Truman because he lacks the common touch. He has an acquired elitism.
MSNBC’s Matt Miller offered “a public service” to journalists talking about Obama — a list of synonyms for cave: “Buckle, fold, concede, bend, defer, submit, give in, knuckle under, kowtow, surrender, yield, comply, capitulate.”
And it wasn’t exactly Morning in America when Obama sent out a mass e-mail to supporters Wednesday under the heading “Frustrated.”
It unfortunately echoed a November 2010 parody in The Onion with the headline, “Frustrated Obama Sends Nation Rambling 75,000-Word E-Mail.”
“Throughout,” The Onion teased, “the president expressed his aggravation on subjects as disparate as the war in Afghanistan, the sluggish economic recovery, his live-in mother-in-law, China’s undervalued currency, Boston’s Logan Airport, and tort reform.”
You know you’re in trouble when Harry Reid says you should be more aggressive.
If the languid Obama had not done his usual irritating fourth-quarter play, if he had presented a jobs plan a year ago and fought for it, he wouldn’t have needed to elevate the setting. How will he up the ante next time? A speech from the space station?
Republicans who are worried about being political props have a point. The president is using the power of the incumbency and a sacred occasion for a political speech.
Obama is still suffering from the Speech Illusion, the idea that he can come down from the mountain, read from a Teleprompter, cast a magic spell with his words and climb back up the mountain, while we scurry around and do what he proclaimed.
The days of spinning illusions in a Greek temple in a football stadium are done. The One is dancing on the edge of one term.
The White House team is flailing — reacting, regrouping, retrenching. It’s repugnant.
After pushing and shoving and caving to get on TV, the president’s advisers immediately began warning that the long-yearned-for jobs speech wasn’t going to be that awe-inspiring.
“The issue isn’t the size or the newness of the ideas,” one said. “It’s less the substance than how he says it, whether he seizes the moment.”
The arc of justice is stuck at the top of a mountain. Maybe Obama was not even the person he was waiting for.