By MARSHA MERCER
On joyous Inauguration Day 2009, the last thing anyone imagined was that Barack Obama would have trouble with “the vision thing.”
That, you recall, was the dismissive term President George H. W. Bush used about his trouble formulating and expressing his overarching principles. Obama, the brilliant orator and thinker about race, surely would face no such difficulties. He would know where he wanted to take the country and why, and he’d explain it eloquently. So many people thought.
It’s ironic that after 19 months in office, Obama is having the problem no one expected. While he has accomplished several significant goals -- healthcare and financial reform and ending the war in Iraq – the president suffers from collapsing job approval ratings. His party is on the ropes.
How did Obama, who started so high, fall so far? My theory is that the president’s troubles stem from his failure to articulate a vision for the country and how his policies would get us there. Without a convincing, comprehensive narrative or story line, there’s a void, which both sides exploit. The political right fills the void with scary pictures of big-government ruination while the left paints equally disturbing pictures of an uncaring society.
The truth is probably between the two, but that doesn’t help people caught in the recession’s undertow. People buffeted by economic forces beyond their control need the president to throw them a more substantial lifeline than the idea that he inherited a mess and they should be patient.
The president has said he thought his actions would speak for themselves, but his critics have been more than eager to fill in blanks with erroneous information about who he is (a Muslim) and what he believes in (socialism).
In his speech Tuesday night from the Oval Office, Obama tried to restart the conversation by saying it’s time to turn the page on the war in Iraq and refocus on the economy. So far, so good. But on Thursday he was hosting Middle East peace talks with Israelis and Palestinians in Washington.
To be sure, every president must move between foreign and domestic policy issues, and, yes, the talks had long been scheduled. Still, the timing again raised questions about the president’s focus and his message.
Columnist Michael Gerson, chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote in the Washington Post: “This is a president who has lost control of his public message. It wanders unleashed from park to alley, stopping to sniff every cable news story along the way.”
More positive, if less colorful, spin: This is a president with an agile mind that glides easily from one problem to the next as he quickly responds to pressing events. Much, you see, depends on how the message is framed.
With about 60 days until the elections, virtually every political analyst is predicting a Republican rout, albeit with caveats about lightning strikes. Some are comparing this to the 1994 midterm election, when both houses of Congress went Republican for the first time in 40 years. Not a single Republican seeking re-election to the House or Senate or as governor lost.
This year, Republicans are likely to take back the House and the Senate is in play.
The big issue remains jobs, and Obama is right to declare the economy his central mission. Some economists, though, predict it will take years for the United States to dig out of the recession. That’s time Obama doesn’t have.
Nor does he have many tools available. His “Summer of Recovery” tour fell flat. He has talked up small business tax breaks. Some Democrats want a second economic stimulus package -- by another name, of course – but chances of such legislation are small to nil.
Unfortunately, even the economic experts are flummoxed. Christina Romer, who stepped down as top White House economic adviser, said in her farewell speech this week that this is “not a normal recession” like the one in which her father lost his job in 1981-82, and there are no magic bullets.
With unemployment stuck near 10 percent, “The American people are suffering terribly,” she said, adding, that’s “unacceptable.”
Back to you, Mister President.
(c) 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.