Monday, April 2, 2012

Mr. Obama's Political Opponents

Every president has supporters and opponents of his policies. Some opponents separate the man from his policies, liking the former but rejecting the latter. Columnist Peggy Noonan writes about people like this in a much remarked upon essay in the Wall Street Journal.

Her contention is that the affection and respect of those of Mr. Obama's political opponents who were nevertheless disposed to like him personally have recently begun to chill. The whole column is an interesting read. Here's how it begins:
Something's happening to President Obama's relationship with those who are inclined not to like his policies. They are now inclined not to like him. His supporters would say, "Nothing new there," but actually I think there is. I'm referring to the broad, stable, nonradical, non-birther right. Among them the level of dislike for the president has ratcheted up sharply the past few months.

It's not due to the election, and it's not because the Republican candidates are so compelling and making such brilliant cases against him. That, actually, isn't happening.

What is happening is that the president is coming across more and more as a trimmer, as an operator who's not operating in good faith. This is hardening positions and leading to increased political bitterness. And it's his fault, too. As an increase in polarization is a bad thing, it's a big fault.

The shift started on Jan. 20, with the mandate that agencies of the Catholic Church would have to provide birth-control services the church finds morally repugnant. The public reaction? "You're kidding me. That's not just bad judgment and a lack of civic tact, it's not even constitutional!"

Faced with the blowback, the president offered a so-called accommodation that even its supporters recognized as devious. Not ill-advised, devious. Then his operatives flooded the airwaves with dishonest — not wrongheaded, dishonest — charges that those who defend the church's religious liberties are trying to take away your contraceptives.
Noonan goes on to describe the open mic incident with Russian president Medvedev, Mr. Obama's reaction to the Trayvon Martin case, and last week's Supreme Court hearings on the individual mandate as adding to the perception that the president has agendas that he's trying to hide from the American people.

I'm not sure I agree with Noonan on the timing of this disaffection. I suspect it started with the way Mr. Obama criticized Mr. Bush's policies, promising to change them, and then pretty much continuing them. If not then, perhaps it began with the way the administration and its congressional allies handled the debate over the Affordable Care Act and the subsequent demonization or humiliation of any and all who stand in the president's way or appear to be a political threat to him. At any rate Noonan continues:
All these things have hardened lines of opposition, and left opponents with an aversion that will not go away. I am not saying that the president has a terrible relationship with the American people. I'm only saying he's made his relationship with those who oppose him worse.

In terms of the broad electorate, I'm not sure he really has a relationship. A president only gets a year or two to forge real bonds with the American people. In that time a crucial thing he must establish is that what is on his mind is what is on their mind. This is especially true during a crisis.

From the day Mr. Obama was sworn in, what was on the mind of the American people was financial calamity — unemployment, declining home values, foreclosures. These issues came within a context of some overarching questions: Can America survive its spending, its taxing, its regulating, is America over, can we turn it around?

The president had his mind on health care. And, to be fair-minded, health care was part of the economic story. But only a part! And not the most urgent part. Not the most frightening, distressing, immediate part. Not the "Is America over?" part.
Machiavelli writes in The Prince that a ruler must never make himself despicable. By this he means that the ruler should never do anything that would cost him the respect of the people. He loses their respect, Machiavelli says, by being thought irresolute, changeable, and timid, and we might add, disingenuous. There are those who have opposed President Obama's policies from the beginning but who nevertheless resolved to respect him. I think the number of people in that category has shrunk considerably in the last few years as Mr. Obama has given the impression that he acts more from expediency than from principle.

Noonan concludes by opining that:
If you jumped into a time machine to the day after the election, in November, 2012, and saw a headline saying "Obama Loses," do you imagine that would be followed by widespread sadness, pain and a rending of garments? You do not. Even his own supporters will not be that sad.

It's hard to imagine people running around in 2014 saying, "If only Obama were president!" Including Mr. Obama, who is said by all who know him to be deeply competitive, but who doesn't seem to like his job that much. As a former president he'd be quiet, detached, aloof. He'd make speeches and write a memoir laced with a certain high-toned bitterness. It was the Republicans' fault. They didn't want to work with him.

Mr. Obama has a largely nonexistent relationship with many, and a worsening relationship with some.

Really, he cannot win the coming election. But the Republicans, still, can lose it. At this point in the column we usually sigh.
Candidate Obama presented himself to America as a post-racial uniter. He has proven himself to be otherwise. He presented himself as a man who had the answers to our economic woes. He has shown himself to in fact have none. He presented himself as a man who would win the respect of foreign nations, but he has antagonized and alienated our friends and earned no respect from our foes. Noonan may not be correct about when the disaffection set in, or what caused it, but she's certainly correct that it's happening.