In the new movie The Young Victoria, the mother of Victoria and her chief overseer meet with the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, to discuss what role they’ll play now that Victoria has become queen of England. They’ve waged a fierce struggle to retain control over Victoria. Suddenly Melbourne cuts off the chatter and bluntly explains the situation. “You lost,” he says.
That’s the situation that faces President Obama and his White House advisers. Months of polls on the president and his policies, the Virginia and New Jersey governor’s elections, then last week’s momentous Massachusetts Senate race – all have sent the blunt message to Obama that, for now, he’s lost. But Obama and his team insist on pretending it’s not true.
This is a bad sign. One of the important tests of a president, especially a relatively new one like Obama, is how he deals with a serious setback. Does he respond rationally and realistically? In Obama’s case, the answer is no.
The president’s first response was to claim voters who elected Republican Scott Brown to fill the Senate seat held for decades by Teddy Kennedy were in some mysterious way actually backing Obama. “The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
“People are angry and they’re frustrated,” Obama said. “Not just because of what’s happened in the last year or two years, but what’s happened over the last eight years.” He didn’t explain why, if the Brown voters were his people, why he’d campaigned for Democrat Martha Coakley, Brown’s opponent.
The next day, Obama lost his cool bearing. He resorted to crude populism, which he’d carefully avoided in his campaign and first year in office. In response to the Supreme Court ruling, on First Amendment grounds, in favor of the use of corporate funds in election contests, he didn’t offer a substantive critique, but called the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
The populism continued the next day in a speech in Ohio. “We want our money back,” he said, regarding banks that received bailout funds. “We want our money back! And we’re going to get your money back – every dime, each and every dime.”
This was the language of a rattled president in search of enemies to scapegoat. Obama didn’t mention that all but one of the major banks have paid back the bailout money with interest. There’s a word for this kind of rhetoric: Unpresidential.
Obama’s aides have been no help. They claimed it’s full speed ahead on the Obama agenda. And they stuck with the president’s insistence that Massachusetts voters were on his side.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said a Washington Post poll showed “more people voted to express support for Obama than to oppose him.” The poll found voters like the idea of health care reform and a bipartisan approach to it.
But supporting health care reform in general and ObamaCare in particular are two different things. Republicans and independents favor reform, just not Obama’s version.
And oppposing ObamaCare was Brown’s chief issue, and in every poll that asked specifically about it, voters were overwhelmingly against it. Arguing otherwise, as Gibbs did, was specious and disingenuous.
At least Obama’s aides had their stories straight, though not credible, on Brown’s victory. They didn’t in citing the discredited White House claims of jobs created and saved in 2009. Valerie Jarrett said Obama has “saved thousands and thousands,” Gibbs said the president has “saved or created 1.5 million jobs,” and political counselor David Axelrod said Obama has “created more than – or saved more than 2 million jobs.”
Meanwhile, the story broke on Sunday that Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe would return to the president’s inner circle to help plot strategy against Republicans in the midterm election and to help push the Obama agenda. The same day he offered his political advice in a Washington Post op-ed. His first recommendation was pass ObamaCare, the same measure that a solid (and still growing) majority of Americans oppose.
If he relies on advice like that, Obama will never recover. But maybe cooler heads will prevail at the White House and the president will deal more rationally in his State of the Union address on Wednesday with what Charles Krauthammer calls “empirical reality.” He’d better. His presidency is teetering on the edge of a crackup and only Obama can pull it to safety.