Paul Greenberg

It's nothing new for president and people to drift apart. Any more than there's anything remarkable about the ebb and flow of fickle American public opinion in general. It can swing from left to right and back again with the regularity of a metronome. What impresses about this latest shift, which is easier to feel than to measure in the polls, is the speed with which it is occurring. This president hasn't been in office a year yet he seems to grow ever more distant.

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Why is that? Maybe it's because he began at such a high point in public esteem, and with such a reservoir of good will even among many who might not have voted for him. So the least decline in his popularity appears great. Maybe it's because of the unrealistic, even messianic, hopes he raised during his campaign, and then during his triumphal pre-inaugural tours and the glittering beginnings of his presidency. He had nowhere to go but down after that. The contrast between those heady days and the grime that must come with having to deal with the real world is all the more striking in this president's case.

It all has a familiar feeling, unfortunately. Anyone with a memory for these things will recall Jimmy Carter's progression from bright hope to utter disappointment in those ghastly '70s. In keeping with the pace of technological innovation since the Carter Years, the whole sad process has been speeded up considerably these days.

How explain the quicksilver change in the public mood? Is it because this president has tried to do so much, or because he has tried to do it so vaguely? Whatever the reason, there is no palpable sense of satisfaction about whatever it is he's doing these days, which remains uncertain.

There is still a vast well of sympathy out there for the new president, but a president needs more than sympathy. Mr. Carter had sympathy, at least before he became as unsatisfactory an ex-president as he had been a president. Herbert Hoover had sympathy, at least after a few decades and a generation had passed, and the passage of time had softened memories of the Great Depression he presided over. (Time may not heal, but it does tend to cover the scars.)

Why the feeling now that we stand at the beginning of another president's estrangement from the nation that had just rallied around him? The shibboleths of his presidential campaign -- Hope! Change! Audacity! -- seem almost forgotten now except for purposes of irony.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.