BELIEVE it or not, there are Americans who have a “very negative” opinion of Barack Obama (13 percent, in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll). Some are even angry at him (10 percent, New York Times/CBS News). As the First 100 Days hoopla started to jump the shark last week, I tried, as an experiment in empathy, to see the world through their eyes.
It was difficult at first, but an interview with the official White House photographer, Pete Souza, on CNN, pushed me over the edge. Souza was showing all those beguiling behind-the-scenes pictures that, though government issued, were more or less passed off as journalism by virtually every news outlet in the land.
Inevitably we got to The Dog. “I want to show this picture because I find this to be a fascinating picture,” said the CNN anchor John King, who found almost every picture fascinating. “The president running down the hall with his new jogging partner there, Bo.” What, he asked Souza, is it like “to add this to the diversity of your work at the White House?”
I’ll leave the photographer’s answer to your imagination. But for a second, anyway, I could imagine what it’s like to be among the Limbaugh-Cheney deadenders who loathe Obama. Those who feel the whole world is against them. Those who think the press corps is in the tank. Those so sickened by the fawning that they’d throw a brick through the television screen if the Bush-Cheney economy had left them with enough money to buy a new set.
But only for a second. I confess to being among the 81 percent (per Wall Street Journal/NBC) who like the guy. And I share the belief of nearly two-thirds of the American people (per every poll) that he has made an impressive start. The new president is largely doing what he promised, and he is doing it with the focus, brainpower and preternaturally calm temperament that kept his campaign on track even as the political press dismissed him as a hope-mongering naif next to the supposedly far more organized and more moneyed Hillary.
That the same crowd is over the top now in its praise says more about the news business than Obama. The journalism industry is fighting for its life. Obama is the one reliable product that moves the market for newspapers, magazines and television. No wonder so many special sections, special issues and special cable marathons have alighted on the 100 Days.
All those great report cards! Trying to stand out in this over-caffeinated throng of hagiographers, a Time pundit sprinkled his evaluations with A-pluses. One of them was for Michelle Obama, whose approval rating is even higher than her husband’s. Hard to believe that just a year ago some of the same commentators were questioning her pride in America, and that Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, was seriously arguing that her 1985 Princeton thesis linked her by association to the views of Stokely Carmichael and Louis Farrakhan.
Of course the high marks, mine included, are all ludicrously provisional. It’s too early to judge the results of any Obama policy. What we do know is that his leadership is restoring the country’s faith in itself and the future; the spike in the number of Americans who say we’re on the “right track” is eye-popping. And, for all the politicians and pundits who complain that Obama is attempting too much at once, many of us like the breadth of his ambition. Doing too much at the same time, even at the risk of failure, is a core American trait that built the nation. It’s as American as Benjamin Franklin, “Moby-Dick,” the New Deal and a double cheeseburger with all the toppings.
We’ll see how Obama’s vast plans play out. We’ll see what unexpected nightmares, bigger than the swine flu, materialize on his watch. The 100 Days celebrations could not fade soon enough, because neither he nor the country should be lulled into resting easy. There are at least two toxic fiefdoms to keep the president and us awake at night: Pakistan and Wall Street. Both could wreak further untold catastrophe. Obama has control over neither, and in the case of the financial sector, he is fielding a team dominated by Robert Rubin protégés whose wisdom remains, to put it generously, unproven.
But if those are the obvious hotspots for this presidency, there is also the domestic political culture to worry about. The Republican Party has collapsed, and that is not a good thing for the country or for Obama. We need more than one functioning party, not just to ensure checks and balances and pitch in ideas at a time of crisis, but to temper this president’s sporadic bursts of overconfidence and triumphalist stagecraft. No one is perfect. We must remember that there is also an Obama who gave us “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” a faux presidential seal and a convention speech delivered before what Sarah Palin rightly mocked as “Styrofoam Greek columns” hauled out of a “studio lot.”
That Obama needs a serious counterweight in the political arena. But the former party of Lincoln and liberty has now melted down to a fundamentalist core of aging, rural Dixiecrats and intrusive scolds — as small as 20 percent of the populace in the latest polls. Its position on the American spectrum of ideas is somewhere between a doomsday cult and Scientology.
Arlen Specter’s defection is the least of the Republicans’ problems, a lagging indicator. Though many characterize his departure as a “wake-up call” for the party, it’s only the most recent of countless wake-up calls the party has slept through since 2006. That was the year that Specter’s Pennsylvania Republican colleague in the Senate, Rick Santorum, lost his seat by a margin of more than 17 percentage points. Despite that rout and many more like it of similar right-wing candidates throughout America, the party’s ideological litmus test is more rigid than ever. The G.O.P. chairman, Michael Steele, and enforcers of Republican political correctness like William Kristol and the blogger Michele Malkin jeered Specter and cheered his departure. A laughing Limbaugh seconded e-mail from listeners commanding Specter to “take McCain with you — and his daughter.”
You can’t blame the president if he is laughing, too. As The Economist recently certified, the G.O.P. is now officially in the throes of “Obama Derangement Syndrome.” The same conservative gang that remained mum when George W. Bush praised Putin’s “soul” and held hands with the Saudi ruler Abdullah are now condemning Obama for shaking hands with Hugo Chávez, “bowing” to Abdullah, relaxing Cuban policy and talking to hostile governments. Polls show overwhelming majorities favoring Obama’s positions. But his critics have locked themselves in the padded cell of an alternative reality. Not long before The Wall Street Journal informed its readers that 81 percent of Americans liked Obama, Karl Rove wrote in its pages that “no president in the past 40 years has done more to polarize America so much, so quickly.”
From derangement it’s a small step to madness. Last week, the president of a prime G.O.P. auxiliary, the Concerned Women for America, speculated that the president’s declaration of “a state of emergency about the flu was a political thing” to push through Kathleen Sebelius’s nomination as secretary of health and human services. At those tax-protesting “tea parties” on April 15, signs and speakers portrayed Obama as a “fascist,” a “socialist,” a terrorist and Hitler. Republican governors have proposed rejecting stimulus money for their states (only to fold after constituents rebelled) or, in the notorious instance of Rick Perry of Texas, toyed with secession from the union.
But this is funny only up to a point. It was in 1937 — the year after the Democratic landslide left the Republican national ticket with a total of eight electoral votes — that a hugely empowered F.D.R. made two of the biggest mistakes of his presidency. He tried to pack the Supreme Court with partisan allies and, overconfidently judging the economy recovered, retreated from the New Deal by instituting spending cuts that prompted a fresh economic tailspin.
In the current climate Obama mustn’t drink his own Kool-Aid. As the 100 Days rollout reminded us, he remains a master at promoting and controlling his and his family’s image for maximum effect, down to each picture of Bo. The Obama White House has been more adept and broad-based than any of its predecessors at working the media, whether “Access Hollywood” or ESPN, Leno or YouTube, Us Weekly or what remains of newspapers. As Angela Burt-Murray, the editor of Essence, a magazine aimed at black women, recently told The Los Angeles Times after negotiating access to the Obamas for a photo spread, “There’s definitely a science to the way they’re approaching this.”
That’s why it was alarming to learn that a White House official had authorized that idiotic public-relations photo shoot for Air Force One at the Statue of Liberty. We’ve just lived through a hubristic presidency that delighted in staging propagandistic stunts to remake reality — Friday was the sixth anniversary of “Mission Accomplished” — and we don’t need another. The real Obama, unlike his predecessor, is more than strong enough as he is, without the steroids of excessive stage management. It will be incumbent on him now to remain grounded when there is so little opposition, in the political arena or most anyplace else, to challenge his high-flying course.