- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Mark it on your calendars. It was in June 2009 that Barack Obama’s honeymoon officially ended. And to be more specific, it was this past week. Through some mysterious alchemy, this was the week that Bush’s economy became Obama’s, Bush’s wars became Obama’s, and the ups and downs of a real workaday relationship with the press also introduced Obama to a more accurate sense of what life was like for Bush and for all his other modern predecessors.
While the change is clear for the reasons I will note below, no one should lament the end of the honeymoon, even though it may be hard for Obama and his colleagues in the Administration not to. It must be nice looking out into the White House press room and seeing all those hardened reporters looking as dewy-eyed and adoring as a teen-aged girl who discovers that Robert Pattinson has appeared at her doorstep to take her to the prom. But five months is not bad for a honeymoon. I’ve had two and the best I could do was a little over a week. (During the first honeymoon, my new wife spent most of the few days we had throwing up…which should have been an early warning sign that another honeymoon would be in the cards.)
Of course, people have been writing about the end of Obama’s honeymoon since the day he arrived in office. But let me offer 10 solid pieces of evidence that it was over by this week. And I say this despite the unnerving fact that the Daily Kos seems to agree with my assessment…and shored up by the fact that NBC’s Chuck Todd, CNN’s Jack Cafferty, CQ, the Huffington Post, the New York Daily News, and a host of other media outlets all seem to agree by having grappled with the issue…or, depending on how you look at it, succumbed to the conventional wisdom…in the past week or 10 days. Just goes to show: even the conventional wisdom is right every once in a while.
Media herd mentality aside, here are 10 reasons (in no particular order) why a reasonable person might conclude that we have entered a new chapter in the Obama presidency in the past few days:
1. Ask not for whom the poll tolls…
The most common reason cited by pundits for saying Obama’s entered a new phase was polling data, like an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll citing growing doubts about the administration’s economic policies. He is seen as the author of budget deficit increases (even though he is responsible for only a tiny fraction of projected shortfalls), an expanded government role in the economy and moves in Detroit that have a majority of voters uneasy…which also suggests that we’re on Obama Time now in the economy. It’s his to fix or screw up further.
2. Can we be frank?
Sometimes a hot dog is just a hot dog. But sometimes visions of July 4th frankfurter diplomacy with representatives of the Iranian regime, among others, suggest real foreign policy short-sightedness. Hadn’t anyone thought through what might happen in the elections? Of course, the cook-out kerfuffle was just pigs in a blanket compared to the administration’s tentativeness in response to the unrest in Iran. It might have been the right call at first, but the Iranian crisis quickly revealed that even charming, smart presidents get hamstrung on issues where there are few good responses and none without some negative consequences.
3. No matter who is president, Kim Jong Il is still nuts…
Kim Jong Il has spent the past month reinforcing the preceding point. “You may be Mr. Charisma,” he says via his missile tests and nuclear experiments, “by I am Mr. Certifiable Loon. Which in the rock-paper-scissors of international diplomacy means I win every time.” All of a sudden, Obama finds when it comes to North Korea…and a host of other places…sitting in the Oval Office makes him look and act a lot like his predecessor no matter how much he wishes it weren’t so.
4. Speaking of nuts, what about U.S. trade rhetoric?
One sign that the sweet glide is over is when after you mete out a policy here and a policy there, you look back and discover none of it makes any sense. In the past week USTR Ron Kirk has threatened to go after the EU if they offer more financial help to Airbus and a few days earlier the US was threatening to go after China for the Buy Chinese provisions in their stimulus package. But, um, aren’t we subsidizing Detroit and don’t we have Buy America provisions in our stimulus package? As my daughters would say, “awkward!”
5. Obama’s doctor and his financial guru turn on him in one week…
At the height of the economic crisis, Warren Buffet was the sage that helped win the election for Obama. Then this week he demonstrates that troubling candor and independence that made him so widely respected by going starkly off message. He joked that despite recent eye surgery he doesn’t see any “green shoots” in the economy. He also called it a shambles. Then Obama’s own doctor went after the health care plan. Et tu, Bones? Keep your friends close, they say, and your enemies closer. But what happens when they start to sound alike?
6. Kissing up to a president who smokes is like kissing an ashtray…
The president insists he is only an occasional smoker. Doesn’t matter. Smoking is gross, sets a bad example and is so 20th Century. It may have been cool in the parking lot at Punahou, Mr. President, but not in the Rose Garden. The nastiness over questions for the president on this subject also really captured the testy relationship emerging between the president and his former groupies in the press corp, best described in a New York Times account that made you feel “if this is how testy he gets this early in the game, what should we expect when he’s been stewing in office for a few years?”
7. Fixing health care can be dangerous to your political health…
Health care is the one area of the U.S. economy most urgently in need of a major structural fix… and that’s saying something. But, according to one senator with whom I spoke, “the health care battle is certain to leave blood on the walls…and that’s just among us Democrats.” It has shredded formidable pols in the past (place a call to Foggy Bottom if you don’t recall) and while an Obama win is likely in the long-run, it may drain the energy from other pursuits.
8. Warming is global but all politics are local…
Among those casualties of health care reform is likely to be getting a climate bill out of the Congress this year. The Administration is pulling out the stops (to their credit) behind Waxman-Markey… but insiders say what with health care in the way, a deal in the Senate is unlikely before the Copenhagen summit in December. The U.S. will therefore go in saying “this is what we might be able to do” which could be a great negotiating ploy or a real problem if it pushes China and the developing countries to say, “we won’t commit until you do… and even then we’ll need a long runway to hard limits.” This is a signature issue for the president and it looks like it won’t happen till 2010 in the best case.
9. Hillary’s fracture was not the first in the administration…
Hillary falls and breaks her elbow…and some people in White House offices are amused and making jokes. In fact, some folks in the State Department are doing likewise. Why, because the one big happy family fantasy that every administration enters with is starting to morph into a more typical reality. First leaked shots against Jim Jones. Then same against HRC. Even early signs of jockeying to replace what some see as a likely Jones departure in a year or two. (Go for the Trifecta on Rice, Steinberg and Holbrooke to win, place and show. But who finishes first? Only Dennis McDonough knows for sure.)
10. The “politics of change” succumbs to politics as usual…
The honeymoon is over when you have to roll up and put away your old campaign slogans. As the big donors start measuring the curtains for their embassies worldwide, it’s clear that “the politics of change” has been overtaken by events…like the big fund-raising events which feature the president slipping through loopholes in order to appear to turn away from lobbyist money while actually raising bucks for the party the old fashioned way.
And, of course, because the intractable problems keep piling up in the president’s inbox and the responses to them inevitably make them the unwanted property of this president rather than merely a legacy from the last, I could easily make a much longer list. Pakistan is an incurable and deepening mess. So’s Afghanistan. Our guy on the ground in Baghdad is calling the departure of U.S. troops a victory for the Iraqi people. Our strongest vote of confidence in the Middle East comes from Hamas leaders who are absolutely certain to screw us the minute negotiations get tough. The global economy is still on life support. California is tanking.
Other signs the days of moonlight and violins are over? You can only buy one puppy per term of office. (I think it’s in the constitution.) Michelle can’t carry him forever. Biden fatigue. And of course, the number one reason of them all: it’s just plain time for the honeymoon to be over anyway.
That’s 20 reasons off the top of my head. To me that is as convincing a message as my first wife barfing into the private dip pool in Grenada while abandoned Cuban military vehicles rusted in the distance. The honeymoon is done. Time for a real life marriage. For better or for worse.