To listen to some pundits, Barack Obama's public image began taking a serious beating when the off-year election returns came in a week ago. Or maybe it was the undeserved Nobel Prize, his approach to the war in Afghanistan, or when he revved up his pursuit of national health-care reform.
But the pundits, as usual, are wrong. In reality, Obama peaked the night he was elected.
That astonishing evening was both a blessing and a curse for our 44th president. As the first African-American elected to the Oval Office, Obama made the history books in indelible fashion, generating an uplifting sense of national pride and renewal along the way.
That alone is more than many presidents accomplish in a lifetime. But that achievement— if that's what you want to call it — came a very long year ago, before he was even president. The 10 months since he took the oath of office have been a letdown, even to most of his supporters.
Obama still doesn't seem to grasp that the collective Election Night reverie is over, and that now we are waiting for him to lead us in real time. Sure, a little bit of hubris was probably inevitable, but it led Obama to conclude, despite what he said back then, that the historic election had been about him. When in the end, as always, it was about us.
That night began to reveal an unfortunate truth: having reached a pinnacle on the day he was elected, Obama's popularity and relationship with the American people had nowhere to go but down. That's a difficult adjustment to make, and is reminiscent of the apocryphal story about the obsessed fan and her friends who worshipped and followed the Rolling Stones. One night, the fan finally got to spend the evening with Mick Jagger. After she emerged from the hotel the next morning, her friends asked her how it went.
"Well," she said, "he was alright. But he's no Mick Jagger."
Something similar was bound to happen with Obama. Some figures grow during their time in the presidency; others diminish. Obama's path was pre-ordained: unless he was able to achieve significant political victories immediately, he was destined to become — at least for a while — the incredible shrinking president.
It hasn't helped matters that Obama is the first president to serve in the post-Internet age. For a while, the mainstream media — what little of it is left, anyway — gave Obama a virtual free ride. Even as they have become more skeptical, however, they've been drowned out by the increasingly loud faithful on both sides who reflexively praise or trash him.
Who knows what to believe or how to figure out equilibrium anymore? The press used to be a check on presidents, but no longer. In the current Balkanized media environment, it's possible for Obama to read glowing reports from the adulatory left about his performance — regardless of how badly he screws up — while automatically discrediting the opposition press. As a logical result of this situation, he's become both overconfident and unable to figure out what the vast middle of the electorate really wants. In a nutshell, that's the quandary Obama has faced to this point — though he doesn't seem to know it.