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Why Obama looks so bad

In a bad economy, no president comes off well

Steve Chapman

August 14, 2011

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Barack Obama came into office aspiring to bridge the chasm between liberals and conservatives, red states and blue states, and the gulf is gone. People in each camp heartily agree that as a president, he's a disappointment and a flop. Both sides even compare him to Jimmy Carter.

Karl Rove, who was George W. Bush's political adviser, sorrowfully concludes that Obama is "weak, dazed and over his head." A New York Times editorial, appalled at the debt ceiling agreement, derides him for "a nearly complete capitulation to the hostage-taking demands of Republican extremists."

Newsweek's Michael Tomasky says Obama's failures prove him ignorant of history and incapable of change. One-third of Democrats want Hillary Clinton or someone else to challenge him in next year's primaries.

You might forget that Republicans used to accuse Obama of a grand, power-mad plot to remake America, or that Democrats once praised his generous spirit and calm appeals to civility. Those who have always detested Obama now find new grounds to detest him, while many who once found his approach refreshing now see it as naive.

But the reason Obama appears to be mired in a 1970s-style malaise is not that he is so similar to Carter in personality or ideology. It's that the nation is awash in terrible economic news, much as it was during Carter's day. No president looks good in the wan light of a sick economy.

The feeble growth provides ammunition to conservatives, who blame it on his extravagant spending and class-warfare rhetoric. It confirms the suspicions of liberals, who lament his miserly stimulus and cowardly indulgence of Wall Street. It suggests a lack of competence that dooms him to failure.

But by any objective standard, Obama has plenty of achievements. He approved a daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He's on his way to ending the Iraq war. He brought about a health insurance overhaul aimed at fulfilling the Democratic dream of universal coverage.

He saved General Motors and Chrysler and the jobs they provide. He scrapped the military's policy against gays. He put new regulations on financial institutions and the credit card industry.

He signed a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. He launched a major initiative to promote innovation in schools, winning praise even from conservatives. He stopped the use of torture against suspected terrorists.

Love it or hate it, this is not the record of a dithering dunce or a confused wimp. It's all in keeping with the vision Obama offered during the 2008 campaign. It's all historically significant. None of it was preordained.

But four years of economic stagnation and turmoil have an odd way of wearing on the populace. Even if most people blame Bush more than Obama, the incumbent can't escape the general taint of failure. It's almost impossible to be a successful president — or at least to be seen as one — with an unsuccessful economy.

Ronald Reagan found that out. In 1982, amid a deep recession, the man now remembered as a transformative visionary was widely denounced as clueless and rigid, with even some Republicans concurring.

Reagan was reduced to insisting he was not a Scrooge, blaming naysayers for hindering the recovery and griping about press coverage: "Is it news that some fellow out in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off, that he should be interviewed nationwide?" In 1983, his approval rating fell to 35 percent, worse than Obama's recent low of 40 percent.

Yet Reagan eventually rebounded — mainly because the economy came back. Had it kept sputtering long enough to prevent his re-election, he wouldn't be remembered as one of our greatest presidents. He'd be remembered as the second coming of Herbert Hoover.

The point is not that Obama's policies are or are not responsible for our current economic plight. The point is that perceptions of his character are powerfully shaped by external conditions that may have nothing to do with his behavior or his particular attributes.

Today, Obama may look weak or out of his depth. In a booming economy, doing absolutely nothing different, he would appear more than equal to his challenges. What is today described as weakness would look like strength.

The lesson for the president and commentators is simple. If the economy gains some real steam by next November, Obama's personal qualities won't matter much. And if it doesn't? Ditto.

Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/chapman

schapman@tribune.com

Twitter @SteveChapman13