Where Did All the Answers Go?

Almost two years ago, shortly after winning reelection, President Obama seemed like a man fully in control of the future. His approval ratings average (according to RealClearPolitics) stood at a high of 53.8 percent, and it outpaced his disapproval number by 12 points. Entering a second term that seemed destined to be marked by a president imposing his will on his political opponents, the president got Republicans to raise taxes in what came to be known as the “Fiscal Cliff” despite their vows to never allow that to happen.

And then the wheels came off.

It is pretty easy to pinpoint the moment Mr. Obama went from what progressive journalists were calling a “Great President” — bestowing upon him “Reagan” status while warning/predicting that Republicans would search for ways to work with this man whom all Americans would come to revere — to a president who was described in a June Politico report as “giving more thought to his post-presidency than his aides like to suggest.” It was during his self-congratulatory statement after the Fiscal Cliff negotiations that President Obama made sure to rub it in the Republicans’ faces that he outmaneuvered them and made them do something they did not want to do. Obama laughingly warned Republicans that he would force them to raise taxes again and that this would continue “at least as long as I’m president. And I’m going to be president for the next four years.”

That kind of political crassness is among the many reasons given by experts to The Hill as to why the president went from being the most popular politician ever to someone Democratic candidates seem to be disavowing at every turn. In short, the president has become emblematic of the Washington toxicity against which he ran, and is being seen by everyone besides his core base as the main reason Washington is broken.

A former “senior administration official” quoted in that piece told The Hill that “I think a lot of it boils down to this mindset that ‘we all have the answers and we’re smarter than everybody else and we can do this.’” The administration then doesn’t see the need to turn to others for help or advice when constructing policy and legislation or when grappling with issues.

But that was all true during the first term. The president went headlong into passing the Affordable Care Act (which, if you believe all the reports, is neither affordable nor does it provide care) and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill. Neither of these two large pieces of legislation accomplished much of what they were sold as being designed to accomplish. More Americans (27 percent) think that Obamacare had a negative effect on their lives than helped (16 percent), and most don’t even notice any change (54 percent). And most Americans don’t think that Dodd-Frank helped regulate the financial markets in any meaningful way.

But the president’s second term, and especially this last year, gave rise to a new kind of attitude from the executive branch. Instead of thinking that they have all the answers, they seem to think that they can’t possibly make the right call about anything.

Two recent crises serve to illustrate this well.

Soon after the great first-term policy victory the president achieved by pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq (against the advice of all military and intelligence professionals), the region was overrun by Islamic terrorists operating under the flag of ISIS. Instead of embarking on a course to confront this evil, the president dithered and dismissed the threat until the group started beheading American journalists. Then we started engaging in airstrikes. These don’t seem to be having a great effect — as evidenced by the U.S. concession that the air strikes wouldn’t stop ISIS from conquering the key Syrian city of Kobani. We are reassured by this same team of leaders-from-behind that the city is “not a major U.S concern.” This is surprising, considering how much they talked about it before.

Then take the Ebola outbreak. Though it has not yet reached a concerning level, bumbling by those who are in charge further proves that they are just trying to get out of their own way. While many other developed countries have instituted a flight ban from affected areas, President Obama refuses to do so. CDC (Centers for Disease Control) Director Dr. Tom Frieden has been so unimpressive that some wonder aloud if he even knows what he is talking about.

Dr. Frieden defended the protocols used in the Texas hospital despite the fact that they were clearly insufficient, and even said that you cannot contract Ebola by riding public transportation. He then warned anyone who was symptomatic to stay off public transportation because s/he might transmit the disease to others. Do these sound like the statements of someone who has a plan for dealing with potential crisis and who knows how disease works?

Of course, we are familiar with Frieden from his efforts to regulate bris milah in New York City. In 2006 he said that “there exists no reasonable doubt” as to the dangers of metzitzah b’peh. Apparently his familiarity with that issue is similar to his Ebola expertise.

Like the rest of the administration, he just wants to look like he’s trying.