By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; A15
One of the unintended results of the redecoration of the Oval Office was the downsizing of Barack Obama. In last week's prime-time address to the nation, the president sat behind a massive and capaciously empty desk, looking somehow smaller than he ever has -- a man physically reduced by sinking polls, a lousy economy and the prospect that his party might lose control of Congress. Behold something we never thought we'd see with Obama: The Incredible Shrinking Presidency.
This is an amazing and, to me, somewhat frightening, turn of events. The folks who ran a very smart presidential campaign in 2008 have left the defining of the Obama presidency to others, in this case people on the edge of insanity. For example, a recent Pew poll reported that "nearly one in five Americans (18 percent) now say Obama is a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009." In other words, the longer Obama has been in office, the more ignorant people have become about him.
This news about the growing ignorance concerning Obama's religion came not too long after yet another poll revealed that 24 percent of Americans don't think Obama was born in the United States. An earlier poll showed that 10 percent of Americans think he was born in Indonesia, where he lived as a boy, 7 percent believe he is Kenyan and still others say (correctly) that he was born in Hawaii but do not know, a notable Elvis movie notwithstanding, that Hawaii is an American state.
Obama's approval rating tracks at about 47 percent. Ronald Reagan did worse at this stage of his presidency, but he was both liked and known. Obama is not all that liked and not very much known. He has become a polarizing figure -- irrationally hated by Republicans and lacking much of his original support. Among whites, for instance, if the election were held now, Obama would get just an alarming 28 percent of the vote. We are once again two nations.
Some of Obama's travails stem from the lousy economy -- unemployment up at around 10 percent. The latest figures, while significantly higher than when he took the oath of office, are clearly the consequence of the monster recession-cum-financial debacle he inherited. This was in addition to two wars and a huge debt. If in his private phone call to George W. Bush last week, the president did not drop a "Thanks a lot" into the conversation, he is a man of saintly forbearance.
But it is clear by now that Obama has allowed others to define him. For this, Obama needs to blame Obama. His stutter-step approach to certain issues -- his wimpy statements regarding the planned Islamic center in Manhattan, for instance -- erodes not just his standing but his profile. What we thought we knew, we do not. Like a picture hung in the sun, he fades over time.
Obama is stuck with Obama -- the good and the bad. There is more of the former than the latter, so all is not lost. But what Obama can do -- what he must do -- is get some new people. His staff ill-serves him so that he presents a persona at odds with his performance. Not only has he compiled a pretty remarkable legislative record, but he moved with dispatch to rescue the financial system, save the auto industry and -- in case no one was looking -- implement reforms of our woebegone education system. The more he wins, the more somehow he loses.
Go back to Obama's recent Oval Office speech. It was only his second and so great importance was attached to it. He should have had something momentous to say. In fact, he had almost nothing to say -- no news to make or report. The speech clocked in at 2,547 words. But if encomiums to both American and Iraqi troops were deleted, it went for only 1,948 words, which meant that about one-quarter of it was mush. Yes, indeed, we all love the troops -- apple pie and momma, too. Now, let's get on with it.
The president needs better speechwriters. The president needs a staff to tell him not to give an Oval Office address unless he has something worthy of the Oval Office to say. The president needs someone to look into the camera so that, when the light goes on and he says, "Good evening," he looks commander in chiefish: big. In other words, the president needs to fire some key people. Either that, or the way things are going, the American people are going to fire him.