Two great questions ricochet around the capital in the countdown to the midterms. The first: Does Barack Obama plan to seek re-election? A remarkable number of top advisers have left the administration. Rank-and-file Democrats are listless. And the economic news is, well, everyone knows about that. President Obama is rumored to be dissatisfied, grumpy, and isolated. He doesn't even enjoy Camp David.
The second question is: Will he, can he, "pull a Clinton" after a presumed electoral defeat and tack to the center?
The answer to the first question may have come from Vice President Joe Biden, who was seeking to quash yet a third rumor making the rounds -- that he and Hillary Clinton would switch jobs in 2012. Biden blurted to London's Telegraph newspaper that Obama had asked Biden to run again as vice president in 2012. Biden, reports Biden, agreed.
It may be that the verbally incontinent vice president is freelancing again, but it's more likely that this is the president's indirect way of quieting speculation that he dislikes his job and plans to retire after one term.
The answer to the Clinton question (Bill, not Hillary) is less obvious. In an interview with The New York Times Magazine, an aide allowed as how the president has spent "a lot of time talking about Obama 2.0," but the content of the new operating system, if there is one, does not appear to be noticeably different from Obama 1.0.
Bill Clinton was able to switch gears and adjust his ideological GPS after the 1994 electoral upheaval because, above all, he believed in winning. Policy preferences would be pared back, even abandoned, in the name of victory.
Obama likes to win, too, of course. But he is so ideological, so deeply marinated in leftism (he picked up the false accusation about the Chamber of Commerce, for example, from a left-wing website), that asking him to compromise with Republicans may well cause a system crash. Though he now acknowledges that "there's no such thing as shovel-ready projects," he continues to see his presidency in such empyrean terms (and his opponents as so lacking in good faith) that compromise seems remote.
The president's peeves are a measure of his distance from the people who will determine his fate -- voters. The president pays lip service to the electorate's fear and indignation about the nation's mushrooming debt and the aggrandizement of Washington's power. He looked too much like "the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat" he admitted to The New York Times. But he doesn't address that concern in any substantive way. Dismay over the nature and scope of the health care behemoth he dismisses casually as the bleating of "special interests."
On the other hand, it seems really to stick in his craw that liberal Democrats are so ungrateful as to criticize him. "Democrats just congenitally tend to see the glass as half-empty," the president complained at a Democratic fundraiser in September. "If we get an historic health care bill passed -- oh, well, the public option wasn't there. If you get the financial reform bill passed -- then, well, I don't know about this particular derivatives rule, I'm not sure that I'm satisfied with that. And, gosh, we haven't yet brought about world peace. I thought that was going to happen quicker." Two weeks later, Obama repeated the plaint, telling Democrats ""It took time to free the slaves. It took time for women to get the vote. It took time for workers to get the right to organize."
Having raised expectations to Olympian heights, Obama now pouts when his supporters are (inevitably) disappointed. But it's more than irritation -- their dissatisfaction seems to eat away at him. During the protracted policy review on Afghanistan, we learn from Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars," the president's chief concern was not tactics, strategy, or victory. His preoccupation was "not losing the whole Democratic Party."
The quality of the president's annoyance at his base -- they just don't appreciate that making history takes a little time and patience -- doesn't suggest a man ready to prune his ideological ambitions. The left's critique seems always to be on his mind because that's where his conscience is. When a New York Times reporter complimented the new decor in the Oval Office, the president snapped, "I know Arianna doesn't like it. But I like taupe." Arianna Huffington's disparagement, even on so trivial a matter, was on his mind.
Such a mind is not supple enough for moderation.