‘Why Has He Fallen Short?’

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Pete Souza/Corbis
Barack Obama meeting with US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and General Stanley McChrystal, Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, March 28, 2010

Of course Barack Obama was too hot not to cool down. He was the one so many were waiting for—not only the first African-American president but also the nation’s long-awaited liberator after eight years of Bush-Cheney, the golden-tongued evangelist who could at long last revive and sell the old liberal faith, the first American president in memory to speak to voters as if they might be thinking adults, the first national politician in years to electrify the young. He was even, of all implausible oddities, a contemporary politician- author who actually wrote his own books.

The Obama of Hope and Change was too tough an act for Obama, a mere chief executive, to follow. Only Hollywood might have the power to create a superhero who could fulfill the messianic dreams kindled by his presence and rhetoric, maintain the riveting drama of his unlikely ascent, and sustain the national mood of deliverance that greeted his victory. As soon as Inauguration Day turned to night, the real Obama was destined to depreciate like the shiny new luxury car that starts to lose its book value the moment it’s driven off the lot.

But still: How did we get to the nadir so fast? The BP oil spill, for weeks a constant fixture on the country’s television and computer screens, became a presidential quagmire even before Afghanistan could fulfill its manifest destiny to play that role. The 24/7 gushing crude was ready-made to serve as the Beltway’s bipartisan metaphorical indicator for a presidency that was verging on disaster to some of Obama’s natural supporters, let alone his many enemies. “I don’t see how the president’s position and popularity can survive the oil spill,” wrote Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal on Memorial Day weekend without apparent fear of contradiction.

Pressed by critics to push back against BP with visible anger and kick-ass authority, Obama chose to devote the first Oval Office address of his presidency to the crisis in the gulf—on June 15, nearly sixty days after the Deep- water Horizon rig had exploded. His tardy prescriptions were panned even by the liberal Matthews-Olbermann-Maddow bloc at MSNBC. To many progressives, Obama’s too-cool handling of the disaster was a confirmation of a fatal character flaw—a professorial passivity that induced him to prematurely surrender the sacred “public option” in the health care debate and to keep too many of his predecessor’s constitutional abridgements in place at home and at Gitmo. When, a day after his prime-time address, he jawboned BP into setting up a $20 billion escrow fund for the spill’s victims, the Obama-hating tag team of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and its Tea Party auxiliaries attacked him for not being passive enough. To them, the President’s aggressive show of action was merely…


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