Hail On The Chief: Obama Takes Hits On All Sides

President Obama has "often confounded his opponents by defying political stereotypes," says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. i i

President Obama has "often confounded his opponents by defying political stereotypes," says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama has "often confounded his opponents by defying political stereotypes," says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

President Obama has "often confounded his opponents by defying political stereotypes," says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Alas, President Obama.

He: can't win for losing; is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't; is stuck between Iraq and a hard ... you get the idea.

Take the Libya intervention, for example. On the right, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham gripe that Obama didn't order airstrikes on Moammar Gadhafi's air defense system soon enough. On the left, Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich grouses that Obama should be impeached for calling the airstrike at all.

Or the budget. On the left, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) says the president "has failed to lead this debate or offer a serious proposal for spending and cuts he would be willing to fight for." On the right, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, says of Obama's budget: "What we have learned is that White House budget estimates employed a number of gimmicks to conceal the true extent of its staggering cost."

Or just the way he is. On the left, Paul Begala criticizes Obama for being "a little airy-fairy and professorial for me." And on the right, former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS) and others take swipes at Obama every chance they get.

Left, right, left, right. A left jab to the jaw. A right kick to the solar plexus. The president has become a veritable kickboxing bag for a pugilistic nation.

Plastic Persona

Is Obama more vulnerable to bipartisan battering than other recent presidents? Perhaps. Maybe because he is younger and he came into office as a political unknown. Maybe because he appears standoffish.

In 2008, Obama was a Rorschachian candidate and people projected whatever they hoped for onto him. Now, three years later, Obama is a power-wielding president and people project whatever they fear onto him.

Obama "has always used his plastic persona to his advantage," says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. "During the 2008 campaign, he was able to put together a broad coalition ranging from progressive activists to disaffected Republicans because everyone could see something in him that they liked. He continued to use this persona during the heated first two years of his presidency."

The Republicans undercut some of Obama's successes, Zelizer says, by painting him as a left-of-center Democrat even when he shifted toward the center. "Still, he often confounded his opponents by defying political stereotypes," Zelizer says. "Many other presidents have taken this approach as well. We just need to remember Bill Clinton."

But at some point, Zelizer says, "it is important that the president articulates a certain set of core principles, some kind of line in the sand, so that he still appears as a leader and so that he has the political capital to push through legislation."

Despite the slings and arrows, Obama still calls on the "president for all people" rhetoric he used in his campaign. Here is a sound bite from his 2011 State of the Union speech: "We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything's possible."

'A Pol, Not A Prophet'

But the day-to-day realities of being president can temper a soul. The poetry that helped Obama soar through the campaign has become the prose of everyday governance, says Mac McCorkle, who teaches the politics of public policy at Duke University and the University of North Carolina. "In the end, he is a pol, not a prophet."

Obama is a top-notch politician, McCorkle says. "He's just liberal enough, just pragmatic enough. But still, he is being hit for everything. The amazing thing is: He has taken all these punches and he still has pretty impressive support from the American people after two very tough years in office."

Through all the political harping and carping, Obama's popularity is strong enough that he is revving up for re-election. He came into office in January 2009 with an approval rating above 60 percent. He lost 2 points a month on average for the first six months — before the town halls of August 2009.

Eventually he drifted down into the mid-40s, where he spent most of 2010, leading into the disastrous-for-Democrats midterm election. He has since climbed his way back to around 50 percent — just above or below depending on the poll. Not too shabby considering the laundry list of disasters — local and global — he has faced.

He inherited at least two complex international military situations, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And a subprime mortgage crisis at home. In his 25 or so months in office, he has dealt with the bankruptcies of automakers, sweeping banking-industry reform, destructive earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, a major mining disaster in West Virginia, the shooting of a U.S. representative in Tucson and much more.

In the end, all presidents are punching-bag presidents while in office. Their popularity glows, then flickers, like a candle flame.

And it often seems that we love our presidents more once they leave the White House — think Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. In fact, George W. Bush, our most recent ex-president, has come up 11 points in the public estimate since leaving office. Bill Clinton is up 15 points.

With an increasingly critical blogosphere and 24-7 news channels, contemporary presidential politics is played out in a spotlighted ring before a rowdy and fickle crowd. The purse is huge. No wonder a sitting president gets hit from all sides.

Here's the price of admission: Whereas we once had respect for the office of the presidency regardless of which man was in the office, now it seems we have lost our awe for the office and for the man in it. Until he moves out and we don't have him — or his dog — to kickbox around anymore.

NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving contributed to this report

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.