You've got to wonder when White House political guru David Axelrod will look at the churning pools of poll data and, like Chief Brody in "Jaws," say: "We're gonna need a bigger boat."
The analogy isn't quite right, because in the movie, the shark ultimately loses. It's hard to imagine a scenario where Barack Obama and Axelrod victoriously paddle away on the flotsam of their own political wreckage. But in one sense, the analogy works just fine: This White House is rudderlessly lost at sea and inadequate to the challenges it faces.
At the beginning of the year, retiring seven-term Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., recounted a conversation he had with the president. Obama's unrelenting push for health-care reform in the face of public opposition reminded Berry of the Clinton-era missteps that led to the Republican rout of the Democrats in 1994. "I began to preach last January that we had already seen this movie and we didn't want to see it again because we know how it comes out," Berry told a newspaper.
Or, to quote Brody in "Jaws 2": "But I'm telling you, and I'm telling everybody at this table that that's a shark! And I know what a shark looks like, because I've seen one up close. And you'd better do something about this one, because I don't intend to go through that hell again!"
Convinced that his popularity was eternal, Obama responded by saying, yes, but there's a "big difference" between 1994 and 2010, and that big difference is "you've got me."
The funny thing is, Obama might have been right. Because things might be much worse for Democrats in 2010 than they were in 1994 -- and the big difference might well be Barack Obama.
In fairness, the biggest difference is probably the economy, which in political terms should be fitted for a pine box. Of course, Mr. Credibility, Joe Biden, says it's doing great, sounding a bit like the shopkeeper in the Monty Python "Dead Parrot sketch" who insists the bird's "just resting."In 1994, when the Contract with America Congress took control, the jobless rate was 5.6 percent. Today it's 9.5 and may well climb higher. More than 18 percent of people who want full-time work can only find part-time jobs. Consumer confidence is falling again, housing sales recently hit a 15-year low, the stock market is off 11 percent since its April highs for the year.
While some people -- such as yours truly -- think Obama and the Democrats deserve much of the blame for the worsening economy, one can be agnostic on all that and recognize that voters have lost faith in the Democratic Party (which is not quite the same thing as saying they have bottomless respect for the GOP). The congressional generic ballot -- asking which party voters prefer -- is as bad for Democrats today as it was in 1994. Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Report -- not exactly an RNC direct-mail operation -- says Obama's approval rating (already below 50 percent) will likely rival Clinton's in November of 1994. Already, Democrats in tight races, including the Senate majority leader, are distancing themselves from the White House, and pretty much everyone has stopped trying to make lemonade out of the ObamaCare lemon.
Liberals are frantically trying to explain away Obama's problems. Some want to protect their investment in Obama, and some want to protect their investment in liberalism. So some claim that his mistakes stem from not being progressive enough, while others insist that he's played his cards right, but we need to wait a bit longer for the payoff.
I'm dubious on both counts. Obama has delivered massively for progressives, and it strikes me as idiotic to say that if he only squeezed a bit more liberalism into his first two years, everything would be better. Moreover, I don't think the payoff is coming, because I think the policies are wrong.
But, again, that's an argument for a different day. What's clear right now is that the president who claimed to be the personification of a world-historical moment has clearly misread his mandate, the mood and the moment. He's lost at sea, and not even a bigger boat will save him.