The charismatic new president who was seen just a few months ago as America's best (and perhaps last) hope of restoring the country's prestige and thus its leadership of the free world is visibly faltering.
His signature reforms, of the American health system and of its approach to energy and climate change, are in trouble. His decision to start the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is looking at best premature. What he now calls "a war of necessity" in Afghanistan is certainly not being won; indeed, to most European allies, it looks close to being lost.
This is important, because much of Obama's foreign policy hinges on regaining America's credibility and an acceptance of American leadership and American priorities among its allies. They long ago gave up the Iraq mission as a doomed venture, and they are increasingly seeing Afghanistan in the same gloomy way.
A majority of Americans tell pollsters that they do not support the Afghan war. Why should the Europeans, even the loyal British who have now lost more troops in the Afghan war than they did in Iraq, be any more supportive?
It is not just that Obama's honeymoon, abroad as well as at home, is evidently drawing to a close, although that certainly detracts from his moral authority. It is that his asset in being seen as a transformative figure, a post-racial and post-imperial president, is being shredded by the week. The sigh of relief that the White House is no longer occupied by George W. Bush is over; it is being replaced by a sigh of regret that Obama is not what he appeared to be.
Americans have already figured this out. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, only 49 percent of them are still confident that Obama will make the right decisions for the country, down from 60 percent at the end of April. Fewer than half, again 49 percent, now say they think he will be able to deliver significant reforms, down nearly 20 percentage points from January. And 55 percent of Americans say the country "is on the wrong track," despite the signs that the recession is easing.
The Post-ABC poll finds his approval rating at 57 percent. The recent Quinnipiac poll scored it below 50 percent. And the Post-ABC poll, whose results traditionally have been kinder to Obama than other polls, found a majority of 53 percent disapproving of his handling of the budget deficit and only 50 percent supporting his healthcare policy while 42 percent oppose it strongly.
All this is bad enough, but there is worse to come. Approval and support of the president's reform plans have declined most among two key voting groups: independents and over-60s. The elderly may be the most important of all, since they are proportionately more than twice as likely to vote as the under-30s, and their votes will be pivotal in next year's mid-term congressional elections, which could see the Democrats lose their controlling majorities in the House and Senate.
Charlie Cook, a legendary figure in Washington for his skill at analyzing polls and trends and predicting electoral races, reports in his latest study: "The situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Today, The Cook Political Report's Congressional election model, based on individual races, is pointing toward a net Democratic loss of between six and 12 seats, but our sense, factoring in macro-political dynamics is that this is far too low."
In a talk-show interview last week, Obama in effect accused the Republicans of organizing a kind of conspiracy to frustrate him, just as they had undermined the Clinton presidency.
Obama said: "I think early on a decision was made by the Republican leadership that said, look, let's not give them a victory and maybe we can have a replay of 1993-94 when Clinton came in; he failed on healthcare and then we won in the midterm elections and we got the majority. And I think there's some folks who are taking a page out of that playbook."
Healthcare reform is the most prominent of the domestic crises of credibility that the president faces, but climate change looms close behind. There is now very little chance of any bill getting through Congress in time for the international summit this December in Copenhagen that is supposed to produce a treaty to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The United States will arrive with more good intentions than the Bush administration, but equally empty-handed.
For the European allies, this will bring deep disillusion, although it may bring sighs of relief in the wrong places. Beijing and New Delhi are likely to welcome such a sign of Obama's political impotence since it will reduce the pressure on them to make meaningful carbon cuts in their turn. The world may lose a year or two, or even more, in what most scientists believe to be a race against time to slow climate change.
Europeans, with their tradition of ideologies and party loyalties, find it hard to understand that centrist Democrats are not the president's automatic supporters. They care little for the calculations of Democrats facing tough re-election battles in red states. What matters for the allies when they consider how much of their own political capital to spend on backing Obama is results.
And after the initial hopes and expectations were so dizzily high, the results so far have been disappointing. Obama can yet turn this around, but he will need all his rhetorical magic and a great deal more political cunning than he has displayed so far. At least he has a chance, with his Martha's Vineyard vacation, to recharge his batteries. He'll need all the power he can muster for the battles of this fall.
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