Here is a rule of thumb: When looking for the true emotions under a top-level politician’s necessarily controlled exterior, take note of the unforced errors. On Sunday, President Obama committed an unforced error.
It came in his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams. Mr. Williams asked him about the strange polling phenomenon that nearly a fifth of Americans tell interviewers they believe the president is a Muslim. As just about everyone now knows, Mr. Obama testily replied, “I can’t spend all my time with my birth certificate plastered to my head.”
Forget that the question was about faith and the reply was about that other oddity, the Birthers. In and of themselves, neither those who suspect the president is a Muslim nor those who doubt he is a natural-born American (as the Constitution requires of those holding his office) deserve the attention the media has showered on them. They reflect the over-the-top dislike and distrust that major politicians inevitably excite in elements of their opposition.
All the talk out of the loose-screw left, loonies like Moveon.org, about George Bush being a Nazi and delaying help to New Orleans after Katrina from racist motives was no different. Today many Americans – and not just his one-time supporters — would say that Mr. Bush’s response to Katrina was lightning-like and the height of competence compared to Mr. Obama’s response to the Gulf oil spill. But push a little and you will still find the same spite and hear the same calumny from the same anti-Bush quarters as raged against the former chief executive during his presidency. It goes with the office. You live with it.
Mr. Obama’s error was not in what he said in response to Mr. Williams, but in responding at all. He should have given the question a shrug and gone to the next question. He should not have betrayed irritation. That he did suggests an underlying tension.
Of course, why shouldn’t Mr. Obama be tense? Polling numbers are for presidents what hair was for Samson — the bigger the approval rating, the stronger the man. But just when he must have thought his standing couldn’t fall any lower, Mr. Obama has had to watch his ratings continue to deteriorate. For example, pollster.com’s average of all public polls shows public disapproval of the president steadily moving up (http://tiny.cc/dj3kc ), breaking all previous unpopularity records for this time after a first election.
Meanwhile, the so-called “Recovery Summer” has been anything but. The term apparently originated with Vice President Biden, which may explain how the administration could make itself so vulnerable to ridicule. But in the event, the summer has heard the death knell of all credibility for the administration’s economic strategy. You can’t loudly predict economic revival and declining unemployment, deliver all but zero growth and job losses, and expect anyone to take your economic policies seriously. The president’s leftward supporters are now criticizing him for not going far enough – a sure sign that they are looking for a way to abandon the ship that they built and that has been sailed by a crew of their own.
To date the White House has surely taken comfort in the lack of strong challengers for 2012. They may have started to recognize that their own bumbling is making once implausible officials look not just like likely but even formidable candidates for next time.
You want to control spending, limit government, and balance a budget? Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and New Jersey governor Chris Christie have cut the supposedly uncuttable and controlled the supposedly uncontrollable. They took and are taking the heat and are getting an undoable job done, even as Mr. Obama has left the nation aghast with his trillions in deficits and new spending.
You want strength and a cool head in a crisis? Mississippi governor Haley Barbour was the one public official who came out of Katrina with an enhanced reputation. He did equally well during the Gulf oil spill crisis, as did Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. Meanwhile, the administration took months to approve construction of berms to protect coast wetlands from the drifting petroleum.
You want a forthright response to illegal immigration and the growing crisis on our border? Arizona governor Jan Brewer is becoming a national star by insisting that her state has the right to enforce national laws linked to public safety when Washington is unwilling or unable.
I could go on, but is it any wonder the president is irritable? His poll numbers are tanking. On one front after another his policies are failing. And he is creating his own opposition. Some recovery. Some summer. Some unforced errors.