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.

It's not just the downtick in the polls that sets off this feeling; polls should mean little to a president of principle. There's something more involved here than the usual vagaries of fortune charted by the pollsters and pulse-takers of the chattering classes.

This administration's big problem is that a sense of proportion is returning to American politics after a financial panic that many, including the president, seemed to confuse with the coming of another Great Depression, or at least with a chance to enact changes as sweeping as another New Deal. Maybe on his chief of staff's theory that no crisis should ever be wasted.

Think of the opportunity a great crisis presents for social engineering, but this crisis may already be waning, and the people are waking up. They may no longer be as willing to write their new president a blank check. As panic fades, so does the desperation that leads people to hand over power to a new leader with new plans. Big plans.

The big thinkers in the White House may have thought they were back in the utter depths of 1932. But the crisis they had to deal with was more like the Panic of 1907, when the country had a J. P. Morgan instead of a Federal Reserve to deal with such things. Back then one man, if he were the right man, could step in and re-finance and re-organize the banks and investment houses. And do a much better job of it than today's Fed and Treasury Department combined. Only afterward, when the crisis had been weathered, would J. Pierpont Morgan be rewarded with the fear, suspicion, envy and hatred of his countrymen.

As last year's crisis starts to fade, the people begin to ask why their government had to go beyond just stabilizing the system and start socializing it. See the transmogrification of General Motors into Government Motors while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the twin roots of the housing crash that caused the crisis, begin to swell once again. Both should have gone the way of Lehman Brothers and been sold off, not expanded.

A huge stimulus package doesn't seem to have stimulated much except the appetite of politicians. Now we are to get a Rube Goldberg cap-and-trade system that nobody seems to understand; thousand-page bills are passed before they're read or maybe even completely written.

A whole new public health-care system is now being debated without ever having been spelled out, so its features seem to change every day with every growing objection. There may be something worse than having a president who is merely wrong, and that's having one who seems lost.

The letdown with this president may go deeper than disagreements over specific programs. It has to do with a developing gap between president and people. Barack Obama is one of the great explainers of the world, always lecturing to us down here on the ground, confident that all he has to do is educate us and we can all be as enlightened as he. But he seems to think it only a one-way transaction, and he's beginning to lose the knack for hiding his condescension.

A president rooted in the people, whose fortunes rise and fall with the people's, may be down for a time along with the nation's fortunes, but being one with the people, his standing will rise with its returning hopes. But a president who gazes on popular opinion from afar, like an outside analyst, and who practices politics with the air of a surgeon operating on a patient, cannot forever pretend he is just doing the people's will as he does his own.

Soon enough the patient emerges from the anesthetic, looks around, and wants to know -- will demand to know -- what's been happening to him while he was under. And when the answers are confusing, vague, evasive, not fully formed or uninformed, that is, no answers at all, our patient will begin to doubt the wisdom of this physician who had once seemed to know all.

Once upon a time a president named Jimmy Carter sensed the country's loss of faith in his leadership and confused it with a loss of faith in itself. But it wasn't America that was suffering from a generalized malaise during the Carter Years, but only his administration. That president had lost touch with an America that was as much in love with liberty and opportunity as it had ever been. But it was saddled with a leader who felt he needed to manage its decline and limit its ambitions.

When the country rejected Jimmy Carter, it wasn't turning its back on a bright new future but the opposite: government-guaranteed mediocrity. America's vitality was coming back, and along with it, the country's confidence in itself. Yet it had a president who was still treating it as an invalid, one who had lost touch with its common sense, with its hope and optimism, with the vibrant spirit at the heart of his country. Sound familiar?


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.


 


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