When Barack Obama sings “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve, he will have reason to think back, with a deep sense of nostalgia and not a small amount of regret, on the last time he sang the song.
If he gets a lump in his throat as he recollects that glorious night one year ago, who would blame him? After all, he was riding about as high as a man can ride on New Year’s Eve 2012.
There he was, almost literally the master of the universe — the canny victor of the 2012 election, having run what was instantly regarded as the most brilliant technical campaign in American history. He used that victory to prevail in a “fiscal cliff” showdown with Republicans the last week of December that led to the significant tax increases on the well-to-do he had sought since the beginning of his first term. He had a 53% approval rating; only 40% disapproved.
Barack Obama being sworn in for a second term in January.Photo: EPA/Tannen Maury
In a few weeks, he would be inaugurated for a second term and, liberated from the demands of running again and emboldened by his win, he would that day offer the country an unabashedly and unapologetically left-wing vision of the American future toward which he was guiding it.
“Preserving our individual freedoms,” he said in a startling turn of phrase, “ultimately requires collective action.”
There were guarantees to move forward on climate-change legislation, on new tax hikes as a means of combatting inequality, and on a panoply of liberal social policy goals from so-called “pay equity” to further steps on gay rights beyond his support for marital equality. And let us not forget the issue on everyone’s mind — gun control, in the wake of the Newtown school massacre of December 2012.
This was his moment. And moments of blissful triumph for great men are precisely why legend has it that Roman emperors hired men to walk beside them as they paraded through the Eternal City, whispering the words “Caesar, thou art mortal.”
For, as he rings in the new year of 2014, Obama has rueful cause to reflect on the words of the prophet Samuel: “Oh, how art the mighty fallen.”
In his case, we can calculate the fall precisely — anywhere from 10 to 15 points in his job-approval rating. And he has taken severe hits when it comes to how much people like him and how trustworthy they find him.
Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have an uncomfortable meeting at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland in June.Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
All in all, when it comes to public opinion, Barack Obama ends his fifth year in worse shape than any president since Richard Nixon. And Nixon didn’t even manage to finish his sixth year.
That fate will not befall Obama, obviously. But as the hopeful stories pour out of Washington about how he’s retooling his White House to dig himself out from under the rubble of the ObamaCare launch, and as liberals continue to assure themselves that once the website is working all will be well, the truth is that Obama’s return to his former glory in the coming year is highly unlikely.
For one thing, the president has gone from being someone in charge of events to someone who is being buffeted about by them — and once a leader loses his hold on the levers of power it’s very difficult to get them back.
Machiavelli says in “The Prince,” the greatest analysis of political power ever written, that successful leaders work to control their fortunes the way people construct dams and dikes to contain and direct powerful rivers.
“Fortune shows her power where the brave have not made preparations to resist her,” Machiavelli writes. “She turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defenses have not been raised to constrain her.”
In the eyes of his friends and admirers, who are shocked at how badly things have gone, Obama did not raise “barriers and defenses” to prepare for the exigencies of fortune and now “everything is flying before it, all are yielding to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it.”
His response to the nightmarish ObamaCare rollout was only the capper in a year when his general response to questionable behavior by the executive branch was, almost literally, to play dumb. When the IRS confessed it had inappropriately targeted conservative groups for scrutiny entirely owing to their political stances, the White House expressed bewilderment, some concern and upset, but acted as though it was happening far, far away — in some field office in Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, senior IRS officials were taking the Fifth before Congress, there were hurried retirements, and a general sense that something very, very dirty had gone down. The president’s general attitude was that he hadn’t known and anyway it wasn’t his business.
Over at the Department of Justice, it came to light that his attorney general Eric Holder had approved a highly problematic surveillance of the Associated Press in its effort to find a leaker, and had consented to the appalling designation of Fox News reporter James Rosen as a “criminal co-conspirator” in another leak investigation. The president’s response was no response: “I have complete confidence in Eric Holder as attorney general.”
Then came the discovery of what may be the worst security breach in US history, with contractor Edward Snowden dancing around the globe with tens of millions of highly classified documents. The president looked powerless and feckless when he proved unable to get the Chinese or the Russians to intercept or intercede to assist in Snowden’s return — indeed, Snowden is now living under the Russian umbrella.
In response, a peeved Obama cancelled a visit to Russia — only to find himself in Vladimir Putin’s perverse debt a month later. The president had announced he would strike Syria because of its use of chemical weapons, but was clearly reluctant to do so. Putin said he’d get the Assad government to cough up the weapons and Obama was let off the hook at the cost of an evil going unpunished and the regime solidifying its hold on power.
None of this made the president look good — even avoiding military action in Syria didn’t, because he was the one who had said he would do it in the first place.
Nothing to smile about. Barack Obama poses in a selfie with Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt and British Prime Minister David CameronPhoto: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty
The one moment when he seemed to have gotten the upper hand was the government shutdown at the beginning of October, but that was only because the Republicans looked worse. And that was illusory in any case, because polls during the shutdown showed he was accruing little or no benefit from it — the public blamed the GOP more but people blamed him plenty too.
And, of course, there came ObamaCare — two months of unrelievedly disastrous news followed by news that wasn’t so bad only by comparison with what had preceded it. Most important for Obama’s future, the killer moment wasn’t when the website didn’t work but when everybody had to acknowledge his four-year claim that “if you like your plan you can keep it” was an out-and-out lie.
This was so important because it exposed another lie — what you might call the great cover story of 2013.
People have come to believe Obama is out of touch and in over his head because having us believe these things was actually the least bad option for the president this year. It is actually better (or less damaging) for Obama to look incompetent than for him to look purposeful.
That’s one leadership device even Machiavelli didn’t foresee.
So now his admirers and supporters worry the job is too much for him, while those who are neither watch the spectacle with a certain grim satisfaction.