Every president is subject to forces beyond his control. If unemployment were at 5 percent, President Obama would be doing fine. If the Christmas bomber's pants had exploded successfully, Obama would be in far worse shape.
Obama's progressive base thinks his problems stem from not being ambitious enough. Conservatives argue the opposite. And what about the independents who've been running from Obama like residents of Tokyo fleeing Godzilla? Everyone has a theory, but one thing is clear: People think Obama took his eye off the ball.
If there's a single event for which Obama himself is to blame, one decision that explains his predicament, it is his mishandling of the stimulus at the dawn of his administration. Put aside the debate over whether it has "worked," and forget the White House's absurd trick of talking about jobs "saved or created" (for the record, I save or create 500 push-ups every morning). Obama made a rookie mistake outsourcing his first major domestic policy decision to Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and the Old Bulls of the Democratic Party, and that blunder has done lasting damage to his presidency.
This time last year, there was a wide and deep consensus that the country needed a second stimulus (President Bush's first one of $152 billion was thrown down the memory hole). Many Republicans, licking their wounds after successive drubbings at the polls and fearful that prophecies of a generation "in the wilderness" might prove true, were either eager to side with the popular new president or were at least resigned to the fact that they might have to, particularly if Obama was going to honor his commitments to bipartisan governance. According to Gallup, Obama started with an initial approval rate of near 70 percent (a whopping 83 percent of Americans approved his transition efforts). When the public is divided 70-30 in favor of something, most politicians like to be on the side of 70.
Politically, the stimulus offered the president a chance to break the back of the GOP, while at the same time fulfilling his promise to transcend the gridlock and partisanship of recent years. If he had offered something close to half-a-loaf to Republicans at the time, he wouldn't have won total GOP support, but he would have gotten a sizable chunk of their votes -- enough for the White House to claim a real bipartisan victory and force a Republican buy-in to Obama's agenda. The climate going into the 2010 elections might look very different if the Republican Party had an ownership stake in Obama's economic policies.