Bailouts, the stimulus package, cap-and-trade, turning to health care when the country was concerned about the economy, joblessness, debt & deficits.
At a certain point, a president must own a presidency. For George W. Bush that point came eight months in, when 9/11 happened. From that point on, the presidency—all his decisions, all the credit and blame for them—was his. The American people didn't hold him responsible for what led up to 9/11, but they held him responsible for everything after it. This is part of the reason the image of him standing on the rubble of the twin towers, bullhorn in hand, on Sept.14, 2001, became an iconic one. It said: I'm owning it.
Mr. Bush surely knew from the moment he put the bullhorn down that he would be judged on everything that followed. And he has been. Early on, the American people rallied to his support, but Americans are practical people. They will support a leader when there is trouble, but there's an unspoken demand, or rather bargain: We're behind you, now fix this, it's yours.
President Obama, in office a month longer than Bush was when 9/11 hit, now owns his presidency. Does he know it? He too stands on rubble, figuratively speaking—a collapsed economy, high and growing unemployment, two wars. Everyone knows what he's standing on. You can almost see the smoke rising around him. He's got a bullhorn in his hand every day.
It's his now. He gets the credit and the blame.
The president doesn't seem to like this moment. Who would? He and his men and women have returned to referring to what they "inherited." And what they inherited was, truly, terrible: again, a severe economic crisis and two wars. But their recent return to this theme is unbecoming. Worse, it is politically unpersuasive. It sounds defensive, like a dodge.
The president said last week, at a San Francisco fund-raiser, that he's busy with a "mop," "cleaning up somebody else's mess," and he doesn't enjoy "somebody sitting back and saying, 'You're not holding the mop the right way.'" Later, in New Orleans, he groused that reporters are always asking "Why haven't you solved world hunger yet?" His surrogates and aides, in appearances and talk shows, have taken to remembering, sometimes at great length, the dire straits we were in when the presidency began.
This is not a sign of confidence.
Ominously for him, independents are peeling off. In 2006 and 2008 independents looked like Democrats. They were angry and frustrated by the wars, they sought to rebuke the Bush White House. Now those independents look like Republicans. They worry about joblessness, debts and deficits.
The White House sees the falling support. Thus the reminder: We faced an insuperable challenge, we're mopping up somebody else's mess.
The problem isn't his personality, it's his policies. His problem isn't what George W. Bush left but what he himself has done. It is a problem of political judgment, of putting forward bills that were deeply flawed or off-point. Bailouts, the stimulus package, cap-and-trade; turning to health care at the exact moment in history when his countrymen were turning their concerns to the economy, joblessness, debt and deficits—all of these reflect a misreading of the political terrain. They are matters of political judgment, not personality. (Republicans would best heed this as they gear up for 2010: Don't hit him, hit his policies. That's where the break with the people is occurring.)
The result of all this is flagging public support, a drop in the polls, and independents peeling off.
In this atmosphere, with these dynamics, Mr. Obama's excuse-begging and defensiveness won't work.
Everyone knows he was handed horror. They want him to fix it.
At some point, you own your presidency. At some point it's your rubble. At some point the American people tell you it's yours. The polls now, with the presidential approval numbers going down and the disapproval numbers going up: That's the American people telling him.