First, it seemed the wheels were coming off the bus internationally. Our people were murdered in Benghazi, Libya. Iraq crumbled. Then Libya crumbled, again. The Islamic State conquered vast stretches of territory. Russia grabbed part of Ukraine. Israel and the United States fought while Iran inched closer to getting the bomb. Our Sunni allies publicly lashed out at the administration. China pressed its advantage.
Now the wheels, which were none too secure here at home, are spinning off in every direction on the domestic side. President Obama got caught flat-footed on Ebola. His 2012 executive move on immigration set off a border crisis. The president then doubled down and created a firestorm with an immigration overreach so vast and unprecedented that it surpassed any act of executive brazenness since Watergate. (The Post’s editorial board denounces his move: “This is not a game of gotcha; facts matter — even in Washington — and so do the numbers. Under close scrutiny it is plain that the White House’s numbers are indefensible. It is similarly plain that the scale of Mr. Obama’s move goes far beyond anything his predecessors attempted. . . . Republicans’ failure to address immigration also does not justify Mr. Obama’s massive unilateral act. Unlike [President George H.W.] Bush in 1990, whose much more modest order was in step with legislation recently and subsequently enacted by Congress, Mr. Obama’s move flies in the face of congressional intent — no matter how indefensible that intent looks.”)
And to top it off, we have serial cases of racial violence and anger over interactions with the police and African Americans, the latest being the nearly inexplicable decision in New York not to indict a police officer in the chokehold killing of Eric Garner. (So much for the notion that if we just had cameras, these controversies would diminish.) Through polls Americans say they do not trust Obama to handle major issues, they don’t like how he responded to the Ferguson, Mo., convulsion, and they would rather Congress run things for a while.
The sad irony is that the one thing Republicans hoped that Obama (no red states, no blue states, etc.) could do — help reduce racial tensions and be an example of racial progress — he is now singularly unable to do. Virtually everything he says or does inflames and aggravates multiple segments of society. It is not that in the specific cases of Eric Garner or Michael Brown he did anything all that provocative. To the contrary, he tried to walk a very thin line. Rather, it is because in the six preceding years he chose to govern as a vicious partisan, jamming through his signature issue on strict party lines with a legislative gimmick and constantly taking delight (most recently in the immigration context) in sticking it to his opponents instead of brokering deals (e.g. the grand bargain he threw away). Forget about governing; he can no longer coexist amicably with Congress or even many members of his own party.
His rhetoric and actions did not cause these recent racial incidents, but they come in a context he certainly created. His incessant misrepresentations — and misrepresentations about his misrepresentations (e.g. “you can keep your health care plan” and then denying he said it; setting a red line for Syria and denying it was his; bragging about getting troops out of Iraq and then denying he made the decision; saying we were surprised by the Islamic State’s rise and denying calling it the “jayvee team”; saying his policies were all at issue in the midterms and then claiming the thumping his party got was no reflection on him) — coupled with international and domestic flubs have drained him of credibility and antagonized a majority of the country. He manages to disappoint allies and outrage opponents. He gets respect from neither. As a result, he can no longer function as that unifying figure when passions are inflamed.
You cannot govern as the president of the left even after a massive repudiation by the voters and then expect the entire country to rally to your side or hang on your every word. Often it is not what the president’s five-point plan says, but rather it’s his tone, demeanor, rhetoric and emphasis that provide reassurance — or do not. Put cameras on cops — or don’t. Visit leaders behind closed doors, or go to Ferguson — or not. The substance and even the symbolism don’t matter because the messenger has become part of the problem.
Many Americans are torn between wanting him to go away — switch channels when he is on TV, wish they could accelerate time until he is out of office, whatever — and praying he will do some triangulation, learn from errors and seek out competent advice. To our chagrin, we have him for two more years and things are, amazingly, getting worse. One longs for the days of quiet gridlock instead of rolling crises.
For Obama, it is sadly the case that on domestic and international matters, he has lost the confidence of the American people. We now lurch from one international and domestic crisis to another, all amplified in the Twitter universe and reverberating 24/7 on cable, print, online and radio news. We have two frightful more years of this, the only question being whether his domestic or international legacy is worse.