When President Obama came to Martha’s Vineyard for a break this time last year, after just eight months in office, there were those who questioned why he was taking time off so soon. Surely, though, a year later few would doubt the man really, really needs a vacation.
By August 2009, the President’s political honeymoon was certainly over, but this time around, the polls point to an electorate contemplating divorce.
The Rasmussen tracking poll on Wednesday this week showed only 27 per cent of voters strongly approved of his performance as President. Forty-four per cent strongly disapproved, giving him a net “approval index rating” of minus 17.
His overall approval ratings slipped into the negative just before he arrived here last year, and have been generally trending down ever since.
The manifestations of a Presidency under siege are everywhere, right down to the level of security at his Vineyard vacation home. Security and surveillance are vastly tighter this year.
A couple of pithy political truisms, one credited to former President Clinton, and one, whose author is unknown, are applicable to the times at hand.
Mr. Clinton: “Republicans like to fall in line and Democrats like to fall in love.”
Author unknown: “Elections are a democratic process used to decide who will get the blame.”
The second adage is particularly apt because it tacitly conveys the message that the elected win ownership of problems, whether or not they caused them.
Was the Obama administration responsible for America’s huge budget deficit? Most experts say only a tiny sliver of it; the rest was down to the Bush administration’s policies and the business cycle.
But it doesn’t matter. The impatient electorate wants a quick fix.
Was Mr. Obama responsible for the shocking unemployment rate, decline in real estate values, hideous foreclosure rate, the financial crisis, America’s ridiculously expensive health care system, the bankruptcies in the auto industry, two quixotic wars, the decline in educational standards, the irresponsible management of BP?
No. In each and every case, the problems predated the Presidency.
But he owns them all now.
The other implicit message of the adage is that blame is constant and fungible; as one problem is addressed, it is supplanted by another, without much credit being given.
So the government bailout of the auto industry seems to have worked? Great. Now, let’s talk about mosques.
And sometimes even when the problem gets fixed, that in itself becomes a problem. The financial bailout is an example. Its beneficiaries are again making enormous money, which does not go down well with the people who lost their jobs or homes (or both) because of these high-stakes gamblers.
As for Republicans falling in line and Democrats falling in love, this manifests in two ways right now. On the Republican front, elected representatives have demonstrably never been so united in saying no to just about anything the Democrats try to do legislatively.
Second, there is the party rank and file, who arguably have never been so prepared to believe ill of a President, even if it means believing untruths. As of this month, according to a CNN poll, 41 per cent of Republicans still doubt Barack Obama’s citizenship. A Pew poll on Thursday this week found the number of Americans who believed Mr. Obama to be Muslim had nearly doubled since March last year. Among Republicans, 34 per cent now think he is.
As for the Democrats, they did fall in love a couple of years ago. But, like the old folk song says, love grows old and waxes cold. Many were underwhelmed by the hard-fought changes to health care, the failure to close Guantanamo, the perceived inadequacy of new financial regulation, the targeted killing and increased drone strikes in Afghanistan.
And those independent voters, who also fell a little in love at the last Presidential election, are still sitting in homes that are worth vastly less, if indeed, they are still in their homes at all. They continue to earn less for working harder, if indeed they work at all. The deficit continues to balloon.
In the year since the President was last here, the Tea Party has grown bigger. The Democrats have lost control of the Senate. Massachusetts, of all places, replaced a Democratic lion, Sen. Edward Kennedy, with a Republican ex-centerfold, Scott Brown. Wall Street has taken to sending a much higher proportion of its considerable political donations to the other side, and the Jewish lobby, a mainstay of Democratic support, also has grown disenchanted. The Supreme Court, in a moment of right-wing wisdom, has opened the floodgates for corporate political donations.
Foreign policy problems are worse: Israel has contrived to make new enemies of old friends. America is leaving Iraq with no government and a broken infrastructure; the war in Afghanistan goes ever worse and public opinion has turned against it; Wikileaks has exposed the details of Pakistani perfidy.
At home, the worst oil spill in U.S. history has finally been plugged but the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf Coast remain polluted with vast quantities of goop. The oil industry and environmental groups remain equally cranky at proposed new regulation. Economists are talking of a double-dip recession. There has been no significant decline in unemployment and foreclosures continue to go up. Xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment has grown like Topsy. The lunar right is talking about “terror babies,” and pushing Constitutional change, as if the document is some part of a left wing conspiracy.
When the President can’t even defend the Constitution itself without getting into trouble, you know things are dire. Yet that’s the case. Mr. Obama invoked freedom of religion to say Muslims were entitled to build an Islamic center a couple of blocks from 9/11 ground zero in Manhattan. In a day he was forced to qualify his words, adding that just because they had the right, it didn’t mean they were wise to do it.
And beyond all the individual problems, people are asking bigger questions. Does America’s way of doing business not work any more? Is its model of democracy, version 1.0 in the world of democratic systems, nimble enough to cope with the changes?
And beyond even that is the general attitude of the country. The last remaining true manifestation of the mythic “American exceptionalism” was the country’s optimism. And that, the polls show, is fast evaporating.
Several polls now show 60 per cent or more of the population believes America is in decline.
When President Obama was elected, the satirical publication, the Onion, headlined its report “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.” That headline looks more wryly prophetic every day.
So who could blame the guy for wanting a little time off?