In the friendly confines of the Oval Office, congratulations are about to be exchanged. On those dithering heights, victory is about to be proclaimed. A great change is about to take place in Americans' health care and how to pay for it, and the administration sounds triumphant.
It is only out here in the country, where the people are, that a growing disquiet can be sensed under the usual thrust and parry of American politics.
The country is about to pass "a critical milestone," the president assures us, though whether America is headed forward or backward remains unclear. Not to mention how American the country will remain as everything from the economy to foreign policy is Europeanized.
Despite growing doubts about where the country is headed, surely the direction is the right one. We know because Nancy Pelosi says so. But even to mention her name is to sow doubt; the speaker of the House may be the least trusted politician in the country, not counting household epithets like Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Harry Reid and, well, name your own unfavorite member of that all-too-familiar crew.
"We are about to deliver on the promise of making affordable, quality health care available for all Americans," says Speaker Pelosi, who always speaks in talking points, joining Tinkertoy phrases till they add up to a press release.
Do you believe her? Do you believe setting up a public health insurance plan won't entrench what is already becoming a two-tier system of medical care in this country -- one for those patients with private insurance and the other for the growing millions with Medicaid-style policies?
Do you believe that expanding Medicaid, cutting Medicare, and generally extending health coverage to some 36 million of the now uninsured, will make insurance more affordable? And, what's more, that it will all be done without raising taxes? Can even Nancy Pelosi believe that?
The dithering in the Oval Office has only begun. But for our troops in Afghanistan, it's been going on for years. This president and commander-in-chief was once so sure that this war -- his war -- had to be won. But that was before he had to command. Now he dithers. Still another comprehensive review of strategy is under way. While the fighting and dying goes on, and the generals, like their troops, wait to see what American policy will be, if any.
Opinion at the top seems divided between the not-so-commanding general and that military mastermind, Joe Biden. The general, Stanley McChrystal, has asked for more troops, recognizing the need to assure security in that ungovernable land if the Afghans, like the Iraqis, are finally going to take responsibility for their own defense. But the vice president, as usual, has opted for a policy that is as simple and easy as it is wrong: a Rumsfeldian war-on-the-cheap fought long-distance. Victory Through Drones! Never mind that his approach isn't succeeding; it sounds good politically, and isn't that what counts? Any problems, anywhere, can be blamed on George W. Bush.
The great danger now is that Barack Obama, after this latest re-re-review, will approach war the way he does so many other issues: just split the difference in an attempt to please all competing factions. As if this were just another federal grant. And the country could wind up with a Korean-style stalemate that will drag on, and drain on, forever.
Better to abandon the field now than engage in that kind of defeat on the installment plan. But a clear-cut decision would be uncharacteristic of this president. It grows harder every week, every month, to think of this commander-in-chief as a commander at all. As a wartime leader, Barack Obama is making a great community organizer.
No wonder Americans' sense of unease deepens. The polls say most of us feel the country is headed in the wrong direction. It happens. Presidents don't always stay popular. See Bush, George W.
Or maybe Truman, Harry S., who was even less popular when he left office.
Are we headed for a repeat of 1980, when Jimmy Carter was handed a resounding defeat by Ronald Reagan? Why? Surely not because Barack Obama is all that bad. Is it just that he's not all that good? But no mere mortal could have lived up to the messianic aura this young president brought with him into office. Even if Americans feel the country is headed in the wrong direction, Barack Obama is still well liked. And why not? He's a likable sort. Kind of like Willy Loman, that ever-hopeful salesman.
Is there hope for this president? Of course there is, as there is for all of us. Maybe if the Republicans do well in the midterm elections next year, he'll get the message and snap out of it -- and become more a Harry Truman, less a Jimmy Carter. That way, even if he proved unpopular, at least it would be because he made decisions -- not avoided them.
Unfortunately, there's a mushy core of ideology at this president's center that may prove impervious to experience, or even to the midterm election results.