Honey, I Shrunk Obama

Column: Four years have miniaturized Obama’s appeal, plans, and rhetoric

July 13, 2012

The most telling moment of the campaign this week was not Mitt Romney or Joe Biden’s speech to the NAACP convention, but President Obama’s Tuesday appearance in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Nor was it the content of Obama’s message that made his utterances noteworthy. It was the small venue: yet another community college. Now, Kirkwood Community College is no doubt a fine place, but Sports Authority Field at Mile High it is not. And one is unlikely to come across a better indicator of presidential shrinkage.

The White House took desperate pains to note that the president talked to an "overflow crowd." What it did not mention was that an overflow crowd in a community college gym could not fill the seats in, say, the OSU stadium. There was a time when Obama regaled audiences of 30,000, 75,000, 80,000 people. Now he speaks to true believers at high schools. By the end of the campaign he may well find himself, like Spinal Tap, playing to a threadbare crowd at Themeland Amusement Park in Stockton, California (a city which, fittingly enough, is bankrupt). The sign outside: "PUPPET SHOW AND PRESIDENT OBAMA."

This is no joke. Our incumbent’s appeal, grandeur, resources, and power have all steadily withered, like slowly deflating balloons. It was four years ago next Thursday, after all, when Obama landed in Afghanistan on the opening leg of his world tour. His perceived inability to do wrong, the effortlessness with which he glided over the political scene, was captured well before an audience of troops in Kuwait, when he hit nothing but net from behind the three-point line. Meetings in Iraq with General Petraeus and Nuri al-Maliki showed Obama to be informed, diplomatic, and assured. He visited Israel (and has not returned). Then he landed in Germany, where he told up to 100,000 Berliners that, as a "fellow citizen of the world," "This is our moment; this is our time."

Earlier that summer, Obama became the first candidate of either party to reject federal matching funds. In a sign of things to come, he blamed this hypocritical reversal on—whom else—the Republicans. He said that betraying a promise made was necessary to avoid being outspent. But there was no question of him being at a loss for money in 2008. His financial advantage had been assured ever since record mogul David Geffen abandoned Hillary for Obama in 2007.

Obama was a fundraising icon. Here was a Democrat who could add Wall Street, energy, and Silicon Valley to the traditional party bases of Hollywood, labor, and the legal sector. Obama unleashed a $740.6 campaign bombardment on the public. Outside Democratic and labor groups spent hundreds of millions, too. Obama outspent John McCain four-to-one during the fall campaign. He had so much money he bought 30-minute blocks of primetime programming to air an infomercial that would make the late Don Lapre wince. No small stuff for Obama. This was campaign finance shock-and-awe.

His promises to voters were equally bold. On June 3, 2008, when he won his party’s nomination, the future president said Americans would recall that day and tell their children,

This was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment—this was the time—when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.

Obama’s ambition did not end there. On August 28, 2008, when he officially accepted his party’s nomination and launched the fall campaign, he said his presidency would break from the "politics of the past," diminish the "cynicism we all have about government," and change "the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other’s character and each other’s patriotism." Politicians who "use stale tactics to scare voters," who say an opponent is "someone people should run from," and who "make a big election about small things" had held the American people hostage for far too long. Obama would be different.

One is almost touched at the naivety and credulity that mark these fulsome, vaporous, and cloying objectives and ideals. One also wonders what the Obama of Elections Past would say to the Obama of Elections Present. After all, his approval rating has been on a steady downward track since Inauguration Day 2009, and hovers somewhere in that dangerous band in the mid- to upper-40s. A majority of Americans say he has changed the country for the worse. Republicans are lost. Independents are dyspeptic. Only the base remains.

The cool and collected traveler with global popularity has vanished. In his place is a president with nothing to say about Europe’s fiscal crisis, one who seems impotent in the face of Russia’s belligerent support of a murderous Syrian dictator, whose attempt at Middle East peace was a colossal failure, who seems more interested in preventing an Israeli strike than in stopping the Iranian bomb, and who happily cuts away at America’s defense budget. Global confidence in and approval of Obama’s policies has fallen. Only Japan and Russia view the United States more favorably than they did in 2009. The citizens of the world are as disillusioned as the citizens of the United States. "Our moment" and "our time" seem to have passed.

Meanwhile, the money juggernaut has stalled. Mitt Romney outraised Obama in May and June. The president has taken to complaining in fundraising emails with subject lines like, "I will be outspent," even though in total he has outraised Romney by more than 40 percent. Since April, his campaign has run $51 million in advertising, more than half of it negative, and the polls have not budged. Democrats are so frightened of reaping the whirlwind they have sown that Chuck Schumer is pursuing legislative and regulatory avenues to shut down outside conservative groups. The panic over donations led Obama to flip positions on Super PACs and same-sex marriage. Money is a sign of political support. Obama is losing both.

The oceans and planet also seem immune to Obama’s charms. The tone of our politics has not improved, but worsened. The most superficial glance at the barrage the president, Democrats, and media are leveling at Romney would lead one to believe that this 65-year-old straight-laced Mormon grandpa is the bullying, lying, outsourcing, possibly criminal mutant child of Gordon Gekko and Imelda Marcos. A "big election" is being reduced to the contents of Romney’s tax returns. Surely this is a "small thing."

The unpopularity of Obama’s liberal agenda led the American people to hand the House of Representatives to the Republicans and increase the GOP presence in the Senate in 2010. That, too, shrank Obama’s stature and power since his legislative agenda is effectively blocked. It is, as Obama has put it, a "stalemate." But it is utter folly to say, as Obama does, that reelecting the president will end the standoff. No one seriously thinks the Democrats will retake the House. The best case for the Senate Democrats is the maintenance of the status quo. If Obama wins reelection, it likely will be with less—perhaps much less—support than he enjoyed in 2008. The frustration and paralysis will continue.

Our shrunken president is correct about one thing, however. There is a way to break the "stalemate." Elect Romney.