The day before he gave his latest brilliant speech, Barack Obama repeated a well-worn mantra to a television interviewer: "My job is not to be distracted by the 24-hour news cycle." The time has come for him to expand that job description. His White House has a duty to push back against the 24-hour news cycle, every 24 hours if necessary, when it threatens to derail his agenda, the nation's business, or both. This was a silly summer, as wasteful in its way as the summer of 2001, when Washington dithered over the now-forgotten Gary Condit scandal while Al Qaeda plotted. The president deserves his share of the blame.
After a good couple of years of living with the guy, we know the drill that defines his leadership, for better and worse. When trouble lurks, No Drama Obama stays calm as everyone around him goes ballistic. Then he waits - and waits - for that superdramatic moment when he can ride to his own rescue with what the press reliably hypes as The Do-or-Die Speech of His Career. Cable networks slap a countdown clock on the corner of the screen and pump up the suspense. Finally, Mighty Obama steps up to the plate and, lo and behold, confounds all the doubting bloviators yet again by (as they are wont to say) hitting it out of the park.
So it's a little disingenuous for Obama to claim that he is not distracted by the 24-hour news cycle. What he's actually doing is gaming it for all it's worth.
As a mode of campaigning, this tactic was worth a great deal. Obama not only produced eloquent speeches - especially the classic disquisition on race that silenced the Jeremiah Wright pogrom - but also executed a remarkably disciplined tortoise-vs.-hare battle plan that outwitted and ultimately vanquished the hypercaffeinated political strategies of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. As a style of governing, however, this repeated cycle of extended above-the-fray passivity followed by last-minute oratorical heroics has now been stretched to the very limit.
Wednesday night's address on health care reform was inspired, lucid and, in the literally and figuratively Kennedyesque finale, moving. It was also (mildly) partisan, a trait much deplored by high-minded editorial writers but in real life quite useful when your party is in the majority and you want to rally the troops to get something done. But there was little in the speech that Obama couldn't have said at the summer's outset. Its practical effect may prove nil. Short of signing a mass suicide pact, the Democrats were always destined to pass a bill. Will the one to come be substantially better than the one that would have emerged if the same speech had been delivered weeks earlier? Not necessarily - and marginally at most.
In the meantime, a certain damage has been done - to Obama and to the country. The inmates took over the asylum, trivializing and poisoning the national discourse while the president bided his time. The lies that Obama called out so strongly in his speech - from "death panels" to "government takeover" - ran amok. So did all the other incendiary faux controversies, culminating with the ludicrous outcry over the prospect that the president might speak to the nation's schoolchildren on a higher plane than, say, "The Pet Goat."
None of this served his cause of health care reform or his political standing. The droop in Obama's job approval numbers isn't remotely as large or precipitous as the Beltway's incessant doomsday drumbeat suggests. But support for his signature program declined, not least because he gave others carte blanche to define it for him. Perhaps the most revealing of all the poll findings came in an end-of-August Washington Post query asking voters what "single word" first came to mind to describe their "feelings" about Obama and his health care proposals. For Obama, the No. 1 feeling was "good." For the policy package he'd been ostensibly selling all summer, the No. 1 feeling was "none."
It's not, as those on the right would have us believe, that Obama's ideas are so "liberal" that the American public recoiled. It's that much of the public didn't know what his ideas were. Even now I'm not convinced that most Americans know what a "public option" really means or what Obama's precise position on it is. But I'd bet that many more have a working definition of "death panels." The 24-hour news cycle abhors a vacuum, and the liars and crazies filled it while Obama waited for his deus ex machina descent onto center stage.
That he let the hard-core base of a leaderless minority party drive the debate only diminished his stature. That's why his poll numbers on "leadership" declined. The right-wing fringe has become so deranged that it will yank its kids out of school to protest the president and risk yanking more Americans off assembly lines by boycotting General Motors to protest the administration's Detroit bailout. Even Laura Bush and Newt Gingrich stepped in last week to defend Obama's classroom homily from the fusillades by some of their own party's most prominent ideologues. The White House should have landed a punch before they did.
Obama would have looked stronger if he'd stood up more proactively to the screamers along the way, or at least to the ones not packing guns. As the Roosevelt biographer Jean Edward Smith has reminded us, it didn't harm the New Deal for F.D.R. to tell a national radio audience on election eve 1936 that he welcomed the "hatred" of his enemies. Indeed Obama instantly gained a foot or two in height Wednesday night once that South Carolina clown hollered "You lie!" (One wonders what this congressman calls the Republican governor of his own state, Mark Sanford.) As the political analyst Charlie Cook has pointed out, Obama's leadership poll numbers have also suffered from his repeated deference to Congress. Waiting for the pettifogging small-state potentates of both parties in the Senate's Gang of Six is as farcical as waiting for Godot.
Now that he has taken charge, Obama will speed the process and, we must hope, secure reform that may make a real difference for everyone, starting with the 46-million-plus Americans who have no health insurance. But when we gain some perspective on the summer of 2009, the health care debate, like the crazed town-hall sideshows surrounding it, may seem very small in the history of this presidency - maybe even as small as the Condit follies and the breathlessly reported shark attacks of summer 2001 now look in the history of the previous administration.
The reason is that health care reform, while an overdue imperative, still is overshadowed in existential urgency by the legacies of the two devastating cataclysms of the Bush years, 9/11 and 9/15, both of whose anniversaries we now mark. The crucial matters left unresolved in the wake of New York's two demolished capitalist icons, the World Trade Center and Lehman Brothers, are most likely to determine both this president's and our country's fate in the next few years. Both have been left to smolder in the silly summer of '09.
As we approach the eighth anniversary of the war that 9/11 bequeathed us in Afghanistan, the endgame is still unknown and more troops are on their way. Though the rate of American casualties reached an all-time high last month, the war ranks at or near the bottom of polls tracking the issues important to the American public. Most of those who do have an opinion about the war oppose it (57 percent in the latest CNN poll released on Sept. 1) and oppose sending more combat troops (56 percent in the McClatchy-Ipsos survey, also released on Sept. 1). But the essential national debate about whether we really want to double down in Afghanistan - and make the heavy sacrifices that would be required - or look for a Plan B was punted by the White House this summer even as the situation drastically deteriorated.
No less unsettling is the first-anniversary snapshot of 9/15: a rebound for Wall Street but not for the 26-million-plus Americans who are unemployed, no longer looking for jobs, or forced to settle for part-time work. Some 40 million Americans are living in poverty. While these economic body counts keep rising, tough regulatory reform for reckless financial institutions, too-big-to-fail and otherwise, seems more remote by the day. Last Sunday, Jenny Anderson of The Times exposed an example of Wall Street's unashamed recidivism that takes gallows humor to a new high - or would were it in The Onion, not The Times. Some of the same banks that gambled their (and our) way to ruin by concocting exotic mortgage-backed securities now hope to bundle individual Americans' life insurance policies into a new high-risk financial product built on this sure-fire algorithm: "The earlier the policyholder dies, the bigger the return."
When we look back on these months, we may come to realize that there were in fact "death panels" threatening Americans all along - but they were on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and on Wall Street, not in the fine print of a health care bill on Capitol Hill. Obama's deliberative brand of wait-and-then-pounce leadership let him squeak - barely - through the summer. The real crises already gathering won't wait for him to stand back and calculate the precise moment to spring the next Do-or-Die Speech.