As we breathlessly near the end of Barack Obama’s eighth week in office (almost enough time to have two full William Henry Harrison presidencies), a definitive verdict on the success or failure of the 44th president is long overdue. Probably at this very moment pollsters are in the field asking swing voters, “Are you better off than you were two months ago?” House GOP Whip Eric Cantor, who is fast emerging as the television face of the Republican congressional leadership, has already definitively decreed, “It’s the Obama stock market and the Obama economy.” Obama himself has upped the ante by going after the AIG bonuses with a ferocity that George W. Bush reserved for the "Axis of Evil" and anyone who interrupted his workout routine.
With a dozen different national polling organizations charting the president's approval rating this month (the answers range from 52 to 67 percent), it is hard to imagine what other data historians could possibly need before concluding that Obama rates between Chester A. Arthur and James Polk on the Presidential Success Meter.
Laggards and slackers may want to wait to render a judgment for the ages until Obama’s 100-day mark, but that Rooseveltian presidential benchmark (so beloved by news magazines and newspaper feature editors) is so 20th century. Waiting a near eternity until the end of April all but guarantees running smack up against the first book publishing wave of Obama-in-the-White-House reminiscences. It is tempting to picture a Tom Daschle memoir entitled Almost coming to a remainder table near you.
George Carlin was wrong. The magic words that you cannot say on television or write in a blog are “I don’t know.”
Our political culture has become so hyperactive that it is almost impossible to joke about the way that speed kills serious thought. Cable-television news is so opinionated and so unreflective that it has proven far more likely to rot your brain than traditional risky behavior like masturbation. The Politico routinely ballyhoos micro-scoops like this one from last Friday: “Dee Dee Myers was at the W.H. meeting with Ellen Moran and David Axelrod. ‘The rest is top secret,’ she told POLITICO 44.” (What a shocker: a Bill Clinton press secretary consulting with the Obama communications team.)
Mark Halperin’s page at Time magazine promises “Politics Up to the Minute.” Nearly 20 months before the congressional elections, it is conceivable that even hard-core campaign junkies could take a deep breath and wait for “Politics Up to the Hour.” Unless, of course, you believe that future control of the House will pivot around what happens between 2:18 and 2:47 on a slow Tuesday afternoon in March of an odd-number year.
The truth is that technology has created an online world where every speech, every snippet from a TV interview, every photo-op can be parsed and pureed for its political content. Not even the tiniest twig from a tree falls unnoticed in this media forest. During the 2008 campaign, a new generation of armchair horse-race fans thrilled to every Rasmussen tracking poll, every Nate Silver regression analysis, every Obama blog entry, every campaign spot immortalized on YouTube, and every Sarah Palin public appearance. True, all the kinetic energy squandered on hitting the computer’s refresh button could have heated New England for the winter, but the entire enterprise was a harmless diversion proving that democracy can be fun.
Now that we have created this 86,400-seconds-a-day expectation of instant political news, it is virtually impossible to return to prior laid-back ways of thinking about Washington. The problem, of course, is that successful governing requires far more than merely winning a particular morning’s news cycle. But our foreshortened attention span gets in the way of long-term perspective. As a result, it is easy to get caught up in the fiction that the fate of Obama’s presidency rides with the short-term direction of the stock market, the cleverness of Robert Gibbs' putdowns of Dick Cheney, or even the pace of appointments to the sub-Cabinet.
George Carlin was wrong. The magic words that you cannot say on television or write in a blog are “I don’t know.” Eight weeks into the Obama presidency, we are ill-equipped to judge the lasting value of his initial response to the worst economic crisis since cars had running boards. The stimulus bill has yet to tickle the economy while the bank-rescue plan seems to consist of some vague principles and some charts locked in a safe in Tim Geithner’s office.
Obama foreign policy, understandably, is even more of a blank slate. About all we know for sure at the early stage of any administration is that some of the White House aides featured in gushy profiles will quickly flame out and others will doggedly persevere through four or even eight years.
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No president could live up to the oversized expectations that surrounded Barack Obama back in January. Not since Harry Truman has a president taken office at a more parlous moment. Two wars and the incredible shrinking economy would test a president with the temperament of Franklin Roosevelt, the intellect of Bill Clinton, the charm of Ronald Reagan, and the deviousness of Richard Nixon. Patience may be an outmoded concept in the media environment of 2009, but it is what Obama deserves in the months ahead. There is, after all, a reason why the Constitution gives a president a four-year term.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last eight presidential campaigns.