The Obama administration is falling asleep at the wheel

It used to be that critics of Obama felt that he was an incredibly astute politician who was ideological misguided. Now there’s a sense that he’s neither—his administration is just simply incompetent.

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It's getting worse.
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Ewan Watt
On 22 September 2011 09:11

On the night that S&P downgraded the United States’ credit rating, a few colleagues and I went for a drink in Shelley’s, a popular cigar bar in Downtown Washington.

With the credit rating, dismal unemployment numbers and the president’s shameless demagoguery during the debt ceiling fiasco, our discussion quickly turned towards Obama’s re-election prospects, or lack thereof.

One of my colleagues noted that because time was running out for the president, once Congress returned from recess he would release a plan “called something like the American Jobs Act 2011”—a series of spending measures masked as a jobs initiative. Why?  “Because he’s become so easy to read.”

My colleague’s prescience merely highlights the dilemma facing Barack Obama:  he’s become gravely predictable; the Obama playbook is wearing thin. 

It’s often been said that in Obama there’s a centrist just waiting to come out—he’ll become Bill Clinton and find a way to appeal to both Republicans and Democrats and sweep to re-election. If this Obama ever existed, he has yet to appear. 

Whereas most of us like to think of Washington as one big intricate game of strategy like the West Wing, it’s now resembling Groundhog Day with the president running the same tired lines about “big oil,” “millionaires and billionaires,” and “corporate jet owners.”

It’s strange that earlier this year the president made such a personal appeal for a more civilized debate when much of the problem with the country’s political discourse emanates from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

But childish rhetoric and strategic sloppiness are hardly Obama’s only problems.

It used to be that when the president appeared on cable news Democrats would gaze on lovingly as Republicans lamented their party’s failure to produce a leader with such oratory prowess. Now Obama has oversaturated the networks to such an extent, made countless primetime speeches and used needless joint session addresses, he’s lucky if anyone is watching—Republican or Democrat. 

He’s become a tired sports franchise, bombarding his fans with personal appeals and appearing on the network at least once a week, but actively ignored by both armchair fans and former loyalists. 

Clearly uncomfortable running on his own record, Obama has decided that his best – perhaps only – chance of re-election is to point fingers farther down Pennsylvania Avenue at the Republican controlled House. This is a grave error. 

Of course, the executive and the legislature are equal in constitutional standing, but this is largely irrelevant. In the eyes of the public, there is no higher office than the presidency itself. The American people want to see the president elevate and control the debate, not relegate the standing of his office to that of the speaker. 

As soon as Obama starts to whine about how Republicans in Congress are doing their utmost to block his agenda, the immediate response tends to be “Well, what are you going to do about it?” When your own party controlled the legislature until earlier this year it’s pretty hard to point fingers. Had Obama and the Democrats not promised so much, people may not have such long memories. 

The latest source of dispute surrounds the president’s latest “jobs plan.” This plan is an expensive attempt to paint the Republicans into a corner and accuse them of “opposing” job creation. But what the public sees is a rehash of early 2009 when the president passed his stimulus bill, a legislative boondoggle that was meant to push unemployment below 8 percent but ended up paying off large Democratic special interests

Given that Obama has previously joked that the infrastructure spending of ‘Stimulus 1’ was “not as shovel ready as we had expected,” it’s as if he has decided to double down and attempt to pass a second package in the hope that the electorate would never notice. He talks about schools, bridges and other infrastructure in need of repairing—projects that he pledged to fix over two years ago. 

Aside from another ludicrous effort to smear Republicans, Obama has decided to play the populist card and attempt to slap a tax on millionaires. In response to Republican accusations that Obama was embarking on “class warfare,” the president simply responded that “it’s math.” One would hope that naming this millionaires tax after Warren Buffett (net worth $50 billion) demonstrates the president still has a sense of humor.

And then there’s Solyndra. Obama is now facing serious questions surrounding the collapse of the solar panel manufacturer which received $535 million in low interest loans from the federal government. 

Solyndra was touted by the administration as the future of American manufacturing, a company that would propel the United States to the forefront of solar technology. Instead Solyndra has now filed for bankruptcy and laid-off 1,100 members of staff, individuals who according to Vice President Joe Biden would have “permanent jobs.”

But this headache won’t go away anytime soon for the administration. Republicans on Capitol Hill have already launched a full investigation into Solyndra, uncovering emails from civil servants questioning the terms and conditions of the deal, even predicting that the company’s business structure was so fatally flawed that it would run out of money in September. 

The fact that Solyndra was backed by a major Obama donor has also not been lost.

It used to be that critics of Obama felt that he was an incredibly astute politician who was ideological misguided. Now there’s a sense that he’s neither—his administration is just simply incompetent. 

The remarks from James Carville last week may not find too many Democrats nodding their head in agreement in public, but in private serious questions are being raised as to whether this president understands the power of his office and possesses the pragmatism to work with the Republicans. 

This administration is looking increasingly rudderless, with even some of the most devout supporters questioning in private whether Obama can actually pull off this re-election. 

For a president often accused of partisanship preaching, he’s now in severe danger of even losing his choir. 

Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based public affairs consultant.  He lives in Alexandria, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @ewancwatt

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