Paul Greenberg

It's no secret that the messianic hopes Barack Obama once inspired have steadily given way to disillusion, and an ever-deepening sense of unease about the direction the country is heading.

The president's critics are tempted to say they told us so -- and they give in to that temptation all too often. Instead of rallying around a serious alternative, which may explain why no such candidate has yet to emerge from the pack.

As for the president's supporters, they sound more defensive than proud. It's a familiar sound -- that of a presidency losing steam, and maybe hope.

You don't hear much about Hope out of the White House these days, or for that matter Change and Audacity, either. Those old words now tend to be used only ironically where this administration is concerned. They used to be a slogan, remember? Now they've become a wry judgment on this president's failure to deliver on the hopes he once raised.

And it was all going to be so simple, too. What heady days those were. But now it's as if the country had returned to sobriety after an intoxicating fling with a media star. You can feel the letdown. The polls reflect it, too, for what they're worth, which is not much. We can be a fickle people, our mood changing in an instant. Besides, a president who was a slave to the polls wouldn't be much of a president. A great campaigner, maybe, but not much of a president.

The results of last year's midterm elections were scarcely a vote of confidence in the president's party, or his leadership. And nothing much seems to have changed since. If there is a single word to describe the spirit of this administration just now, it is entropy. The new has worn off, and revealed ... nobody is quite sure.

More and more, there doesn't seem to be any there there. What, besides his own re-election, does the man stand for? It's not easy to say, and it is this lack of definition that has come to define him. Which is not a good sign in a candidate who would lead. That is, if he's ever been interested in leading -- as opposed to moderating a national conversation and group therapy session.

Barack Obama may or may not have retained his personal popularity, but it's hard to escape the impression that his presidency is winding down -- at home and abroad. The feeling grows that it's time for a change from the change he ushered in, or was going to.

In the battle over the budget, the president (who's more of a presidential candidate these days) can be counted on to play the Class War card sooner and/or later. But even at his most strident, maybe especially at his most strident, he comes across as ineffectual. You can almost hear the steam going out of his presidency.

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.