Why Obama Has A Lead At The All-Star Break

Presidents have a lot of fine privileges, from flying on Air Force One to meeting the most important people in the world. But how many of these perquisites really compare with what Barack Obama got to do last night?

As the sun went down in St. Louis, the president tossed the ceremonial first pitch at the All-Star Game. He flew to the game with Willie Mays and at the dugout shook heads with Stan Musial. And if that were not enough boyhood-fantasy fulfillment, he went to the booth for a little baseball banter with longtime broadcasters Tim McCarver and Joe Buck.

Is it good to be the king yet? Well, yes, and it is good to find respite in our official national pastime (read: baseball) after a few months of our unofficial national obsession (read: politics).

Baseball takes this break just past the midpoint of its season, providing a chance for fans to assess the standings and project the post-season. So as the president takes the mound, we must extend the metaphor to ask: What kind of season is he having?

The call: He's like a rookie pitcher who's had a flashy start but who's still getting sized up by the rival hitters. As for the aggregate White House team, they have the equivalent of a lead in their division but remain far from assured of a pennant this year, much less a World Series ring.

Of course, there's room for an argument with the umpire here.

In their own minds, the president and his inner circle may see him as Albert Pujols, the hometown St. Louis slugger who saved the president's pitch from hitting the dirt last night (and who leads the majors in homers, runs scored and runs batted in). In team terms, they may idealize the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are close to winning two games out of three so far this season.

But in the eyes of rivals and critics, the president and his team are limping into the break. They returned from their latest trip abroad with little to show that interested most Americans, who are still anxious about the pace of economic recovery. As Obama's approval polls got softer lately, more Democrats on Capitol Hill seemed to be wandering away from key elements of his agenda.

Why, then, do we still see him in first place at this point?

First, he's still the pace setter in every sense of the term. His rise remains the pivotal development of recent political history, and his trajectory has yet to turn downward. He is deciding which issues the nation's capital will focus on and which it will defer. He is providing the batting order and dictating the tempo of the game.

So when people talk about reviving the economy, redefining health care, rebalancing the energy-environment equation and re-regulating the financial industry, they do so because the Obama administration set these priorities. Down the road, we expect to see education, immigration and gay rights added to that list, each along the lines the Obama people prefer.

So wide is the horizon of rethinking that even the historic nature of Obama's first Supreme Court nomination, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, has seemed just another link in the chain.

Second, the president has powered this agenda with the first vision of systematic change the country has seen on the progressive side in more than 40 years. When he talks about what he wants to do, he goes well beyond the minimalism of re-election strategy. In fact, he sees far enough ahead to guarantee that he will be called a radical and that his re-election will be a struggle.

That may be prove to be overreaching, and it may be foolhardy. But the sheer risk factor lends momentum and magnitude and excitement of a kind most presidencies never approach.

Third, the new president has stepped out on the world stage in a way no one has dared since Richard Nixon went to China. In just his first few months in office, he has refashioned the nation's military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and revised its posture toward Iran, North Korea, Russia and the Middle East stalemate. For better or worse, he is determined to open a new era of American internationalism.

Fourth, this president is benefiting from the down year of his party's national rival. Many GOP heroes of past seasons have retired, and veterans such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky seem past their prime and uninspiring. It was always going to be a rebuilding season, but lately, even the can't-miss young GOP talents have been washing out or coming down with career-ending injuries.

To be sure, the true measure of the Obama presidency and its Republican foes will be taken over more than one season. But much will depend on the outcome of this first year, and much will be determined when the big legislative packages all reach the floor in the fall. As it looks now, the fateful moments may well coincide with those of the World Series in October.

No one can say now whether Pujols will be leading his St. Louis teammates to the championship in that month. And no one knows how his old battery-mate from the All-Star game will be faring in his own Big Leagues, either.

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