President Obama may not understand what’s been happening to him lately, as his disapproval ratings climb and his approval ratings sink.
After all, Obama made and broke promises during the campaign, and he learned that it didn’t seem to matter. Campaign financing was the biggest one, but he asked us to trust him and plenty of people did.
The press didn’t press him. His opponents—be they Hillary Clinton or John McCain, Democrat or Republican—couldn’t seem to find an approach that worked for them or a charge that would stick to him. They found Obama to be a moving and slippery target, protected by a personality many found attractive, an impervious coolness, a steamrolling money-raising machine, an army of starry-eyed acolytes, a blankness that invited people to project onto him whatever qualities and goals they found attractive and desirable, and an identity as a black man that made people want to give him the benefit of the doubt lest they be accused of racism.
All in all, a winning combination, electorally speaking.
But winning an election is not the same as winning support in Congress, and a campaign is not a presidency. One of the main differences between a campaign and an administration is that presidents, unlike candidates, must produce more than rhetoric. Although they may take credit for their successes, they must ultimately also take responsibility for their failures.
If they like you, the public forgives—but not everything, and not forever.
The other day I compared disillusioned Obama voters to disappointed lovers. This is true whether they are on the Left, and disappointed because Obama hasn’t turned out to be radical enough to suit their tastes; or more to the center, and frustrated because he’s been insufficiently moderate. The betrayed lover metaphor is strangely apt (even Obama-supporter Ed Koch seems to be using it; see his recent piece entitled “Falling out of love with Obama”) because it contains elements that match what has happened and is still happening to a growing segment of Obama supporters: a relationship begun in the glow of the fantasy of perfection and wish-fulfillment meets the flawed and sometimes deeply disappointing reality of who the lover actually is. Sometimes, that lover even turns out to be a con artist, a narcissist, and/or a liar.
But because love is deep and love can be very irrational, it can take time—and a lot of lies and a lot of deception—to break the illusion. But once a person internalizes the idea that he/she has been betrayed, then the trust so basic to a relationship is broken and it’s almost impossible to earn it back.
And so it appears to be dawning on an increasing number of Americans that President Obama cannot be trusted. There are two reasons for this. The first is that so many of the things he promised during the campaign—transparency, bipartisanship, unity and an end to blaming, a post-racial presidency, no catering to special interests and lobbies, and posting of bills in a timely fashion online, to name just a few—have not only been violated, but have been boldly, flagrantly, and shamelessly violated. The second thing is that his pre-election stance as a moderate is seen to have been a lie as well, and that’s even more basic—at least for the moderates and Independents who gave him the support he required to put him over the top and guarantee his election.
One can talk about this policy of Obama’s or that one, and agree with certain elements of his program and disagree with others. But although these are very important issues, they are not the issue. Trust is.
During the campaign, Obama’s personal characteristics accounted for much of the bedrock of his appeal, despite the fact that he had almost no track record of action to point to. Now that he has amassed an actual record of sorts, albeit a short one—especially the stimulus bill, its false promises and then the false spin about how it’s helped, as well as the health care reform proposals and the failure to explain the details of the policy involved or why it would help—the public is left with a sense of distrust and unease. And the public is now able to connect the dots because we’ve been treated to more than a repeating stump speech. We’ve experienced the man over time.
Will Obama be able to win trust back, as commenter huxley posits when he writes: “Today I read an interesting theory that Obama will spend the first year or so swinging for the leftist fences then tack back to the center in time for the economy to get better and for him to be re-elected in 2012?”
I don’t think it’s about Obama’s tacking to the Left and then to the Right, although I suppose he may end up performing that maneuver if he feels he has absolutely no choice. Clinton—who was less ideologically committed to the Left in the first place—did so, but he managed it before he’d been caught in a flagrant lie that the American people could not ignore. And even later, when Clinton was busted, the lie was about his personal life rather than policy, so quite a few people considered it more between him and his wife rather than between him and us.
It’s almost incomprehensible that Obama would cheat on his wife; he’s too controlled, for one thing. But he’s cheated on the rest of us time and again, and it’s my belief that the American people will take that far more personally—as they should.