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09.02.11

A President Adrift

After a week of presidential humiliations and capitulations, Michael Tomasky suggests that Obama will soon pass the point where he can be taken seriously as a leader.

More dispiriting news, this time about the White House overturning the EPA’s proposed new rules on smog. That comes a few hours after the jobs report from Friday morning, one of the bleakest yet. And it comes a few days in advance of what everyone expects will be a small-thinking, modest, blah jobs speech by the president. It’s not only getting to the point where it’s getting hard to see him winning reelection. It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to imagine people taking him seriously for the remaining 14 months of his current term.

The smog decision is a real low. The story behind this includes the fact that, as Brad Plumer reports environmental groups were going to file a lawsuit in 2009 about Bush-era ozone rules, and the Obama administration told them, in effect, “Wait, don’t hassle us with a lawsuit, we’re going to propose stricter rules soon.” So the stricter rules were proposed, and the White House has now said, “Sorry, changed our mind.”

We can’t calculate yet how this will reverberate through the environmental world, but we can imagine. This is the kind of thing that sticks with people. A promise was made and broken. And you know how partisans say sometimes in anger that we’d have been better off with the other guy? They say it for effect and don’t actually mean it. But in this case, it’s literally true. Bush-proposed standards in 2008 were tougher than the 1997 standards under which companies will now operate. I doubt environmentalists will forget this one.

And not just environmentalists. Even the Center for American Progress—the leading Democratic think-tank, an organization that is very, very close to the administration—issued a statement criticizing this decision (apologies—it was emailed to me, but without a link). That may be a first for CAP, which called the decision “deeply disappointing” and said it “grants an item on Big Oil’s wish list at the expense of the health of children, seniors and the infirm.” And the timing of it could not be worse, coming at the end of a week that included a stupid unforced error (the speech fracas) and leaks indicating a set of small-bore proposals to be offered next week.

On the jobs front, as Matt Yglesias points out, things are going exactly according to Republican plan, insofar as massive public-sector layoffs every single month are helping to depress overall jobs numbers. These layoffs are of course the direct result of budget cuts—reductions in federal aid to states in various programs that have come under the knife since the spring. The deals Obama has made with the Republicans have therefore contributed to the jobs crisis. The Republicans of course know this and surely have a chuckle about it in private. Obama makes videos bragging about the single biggest budget cut in history.

Which of the Democratic Party’s big-money people can reach Obama? Who can pierce the armor of his inner circle and tell him he needs to change course in a hurry?

I keep thinking back lately to that candidate and team I watched in 2008. The candidate really had his finger on something. The team almost never made a serious mistake. When a mistake did happen, they did a respectable job of digging their way out of it. They had some fight in them. Well, I’ve learned something new from these folks: Up until now, I’ve thought that running a strong presidential campaign is a sign that one can probably govern fairly well too. But there appears to be little correlation between the two.

One wonders if there is concern now in the party’s higher echelons about the White House’s methods. Of course there must be. But what, for example, do seasoned Democratic senators say to one another when they chat in private? What about the party’s big money people? All of them must be dismayed. But which of them can reach Obama? Who can pierce the armor of his inner circle and tell him he needs to start doing business in a different way in a hurry?

This week has the feel of one that might become retrospectively pivotal. If indeed we are standing there watching as President Perry is sworn in two Januarys from now, and we’re forced to ponder the what ifs, space will be reserved on that list for a week in which the administration made a boneheaded political mistake, presided over a jobs announcement with zero growth, and turned on a key constituency group.

Believe me, I’d rather be writing positive columns. But if I were a sports columnist at The Washington Post and the Redskins had lost five in a row, I could hardly write, “Hey, gang, everything’s going according to plan.” It ain’t. I have little expectation that they’ll listen to me. I can only hope someone they will listen to breaks through soon, before it becomes too late to turn things around.