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Obama the mortal

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Some parishioners in the Church of Obama discovered last week that their spiritual leader is a false prophet.

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Consider the blow suffered by the liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, who issued a plaintive plea to the president on the eve of his announcement that he was sending 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. By escalating the war, Moore wrote:

"[Y]ou will do the worst possible thing you could do -- destroy the hopes and dreams so many millions have placed in you. With just one speech tomorrow night you will turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics. You will teach them what they've always heard is true -- that all politicians are alike."

Obama, of course, was not moved by his follower from Flint. The real question is why Moore, and those millions and multitudes of whom he wrote, thought that Obama would do otherwise. Obama never said during the campaign that he would pull out of Afghanistan; in fact, he had promised to escalate. "As president, I will make the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be," he said in July 2008, vowing to send at least two more combat brigades to Afghanistan. "This is a war that we have to win."

Yet Moore is surely right about the disillusionment of Obama's supporters. Even before the surge announcement, support among liberals for Obama's Afghanistan policy had dropped 22 points since July, to 59 percent from 81 percent, according to a Post-ABC News poll. Overall liberal support for Obama had drifted down to 80 percent from 94 percent in the spring -- and, given the noisy complaints from the left last week, that number seems likely to fall further.

It was bound to happen eventually. Obama had become to his youthful supporters a vessel for all of their liberal hopes. They saw him as a transformational figure who would end war, save the Earth from global warming, restore the economy -- and still be home for dinner. They lashed out at anybody who dared to suggest that Obama was just another politician, subject to calculation, expediency and vanity like all the rest.

Certainly, Obama gets some blame for encouraging the messianic cult as he stumped for change and hope. "I am asking you to stop settling for what the cynics say we have to accept," he would say as he wrapped up speeches. "Let us reach for what we know is possible: A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again."

In other cases, Obama truly has gone back on campaign vows. Even some of his advisers are disappointed that he has moved so slowly to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Civil libertarians are justifiably disappointed with his decision to continue much of the Bush administration secrecy. Clean-government types are understandably frustrated that Obama vowed that lobbyists "will not get a job in my White House" but now grants waivers so that lobbyists can work in key administration jobs.

But at least as much blame for the disillusionment goes to progressives who simply expected too much of him. Some are disappointed that the Nobel Peace Prize winner proposed even higher defense spending than George W. Bush did -- but Obama never said he would cut the Pentagon's budget. Many liberals are disappointed that he isn't pushing the "public option" more forcefully in the health-care debate -- but it was never something Obama emphasized during the campaign.

For all of Obama's soaring oratory about hope and change, it was plain even during the campaign that his record was that of an incrementalist. His signature legislation -- health care in the Illinois Senate and ethics in the U.S. Senate -- were evolutionary improvements, not revolutionary overhauls. His Afghanistan policy, likewise, is above all a pragmatic, nonideological strategy. He stayed true to his campaign promise to take the fight to the Taliban, but he also tried to build a consensus.

You'd think his supporters might applaud this sort of thoughtful, methodical leadership as a repudiation of the Bush style of government by political theory. Instead, they're using words such as "O'Bomber" to describe the president. MoveOn.org launched a petition drive against the policy. Code Pink, the group that heckled Bush officials for years, heckled Obama advisers on Capitol Hill last week. The liberal Web publisher Arianna Huffington told Charlie Rose that the policy "puts into question his whole leadership."

This is what happens when true believers mistake a mortal for a messiah.

danamilbank@washpost.com



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