The Magazine

The Times They Are a-Changin’ .  .  .

But Obama isn’t

Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By FRED BARNES
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The Times They Are a-Changin’ .  .  .

When the White House sent word to Senate Republicans on May 21 that President Obama wished to come to their weekly lunch the next day to talk about bipartisanship, Republicans agreed. But they were baffled. Just the day before, a story on the front page of the Washington Post had cited the successful efforts by the Obama administration to kill bipartisan agreement on the recently passed bill to stiffen regulation of financial markets.

The president was unabashed. He told Republicans he needed their help—their bipartisanship—on seven pieces of legislation on subjects ranging from immigration to energy to a “jobs” bill. It was, Republican senators later noted, not so much an appeal as a lecture.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who’d sought to negotiate a bipartisan financial reform bill, was among the first to question Obama. Corker started by recalling the “warm relations” they’d had when Obama was a senator.

“Still do,” Obama replied, according to Corker.

But the cordiality vanished as Corker continued. He told Obama there was “a degree of audacity in your being here today.”

“What’s your question?” Obama interrupted.

“My prologue is not long,” Corker replied. He asked the president to “show me the respect .  .  . of listening to all of it.” Then he mentioned the Post story on how the White House tried “to keep [bipartisanship] from happening.”

Obama was asking for bipartisanship from Republican senators, but he had rejected it on financial reform, health care, and the economic stimulus. “How do you reconcile that duplicity?” Corker asked Obama.

The president’s response was meandering. It reminded Corker of Obama’s inconclusive 17-minute answer to a question about tax increases at a town hall meeting in early April. It was, Corker said, “a nothing answer.”

Obama’s appearance was a failure. Republican senators weren’t appeased. They couldn’t understand why he would appeal for bipartisanship as if he were actually pursuing it. He was talking to people who he surely realized knew better. He appeared to be oblivious, unaware, uninformed.

But Obama’s real problem is that the era of hope and change is over, and he hasn’t adjusted to it. He’s confronted by a debt crisis, the oil spill, and high unemployment. These are front-burner issues a president is expected to address seriously and on which he’ll be held accountable. Yet Obama is still stuck on his old agenda. And he dwells on sentiments like bipartisanship that no longer resonate.

It’s as if he’s relying on note cards from the early days of his presidency (nearly 17 months ago). Meanwhile, the world has moved on. When the world changed for FDR, he switched from “Dr. New Deal” to “Dr. Win the War.” Obama hasn’t switched. He’s still “Dr. Enact My Agenda.”

At his press conference on May 27, Obama exploited the oil spill to tout his energy and global warming legislation. Cap and trade would “jumpstart a permanent transition to a clean energy economy,” he said. Fine, but how about dealing with the economy we have now?

Last week at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he touted small steps he’s taken to aid the economy. But that was peripheral to the larger point of his speech, captured by USA Today with its headline, “Obama Urges Expansion of Agenda.”

Even the media, curtailing their worshipful phase, have figured out that Obama is underperforming. But their explanation, that the president lacks passion, is beside the point. What’s required from Obama is strong leadership and effective crisis management. He’s offered neither.

As the spill continued to gush oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal sought approval from Washington to construct 24 sand berms to protect coastal marshlands. The state’s congressional delegation backed the idea and Republican representative Steve Scalise, whose district is near the coast, called the White House to speak to Obama about the request. He heard back from a junior aide.

Obama could have approved the berms instantly with a phone call. Instead, he allowed Jindal’s urgent appeal to get mired down in the bureaucracy. At his press conference, he said:

When I met with [Jindal] when I was down there two weeks ago, I said I will make sure our team immediately reviews this idea, that the Army Corps of Engineers is looking at the feasibility of it, and if they tell me that this is the best approach to dealing with this problem, then we’re going to move quickly to execute it. If they have a disagreement with Gov. Jindal’s experts as to whether this would be effective or not, whether it was going to be cost-effective, given the other things that need to be done, then we’ll sit down and try to figure that out.

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