Obama, the One-Term President

By Roger Simon
|  Tuesday, Aug 17, 2010  |  Updated 6:15 AM CDT
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Obama, the One-Term President

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Q: Will Barack Obama be a one-term president?

A: Yes, he might last that long.

Honest to goodness, the man just does not get it. He might be forced to pull a Palin and resign before his first term is over. He could go off and write his memoirs and build his presidential library. (Both would be half-size, of course.)

I am not saying Obama is not smart; he is as smart as a whip. I am just saying he does not understand what savvy first-term presidents need to understand:

You have to stay on message, follow the polls, listen to your advisers (who are writing the message and taking the polls) and realize that when it comes to doing what is right versus doing what is expedient, you do what is expedient so that you can get reelected and do what is right in the second term. If at all possible. And it will help your legacy. And not endanger the election of others in your party. And not hurt the brand. Or upset people too much.

Recently, President Obama decided he had to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the proposed construction of a Muslim community center and mosque near ground zero in New York.

It is a controversy Obama could have ducked (he had been doing so for weeks), but he finally decided he needed to lend his voice and the weight of the presidency to speaking out for what is right.

So on Friday night, he said: “As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”

See what I mean about not getting it?

John Feehery, a Republican consultant, told Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times, “This is not a unifying decision on his part; he chose a side. I understand why he did this, but politically I think it’s a blunder.”

You could not put the conventional wisdom more clearly: It is far better for a president to do nothing than to choose a side. Even if the side he chooses is the right one from an ethical or moral perspective, it is a “blunder” politically because inevitably it will upset some people.

The problem for Obama is that he appears to have taken seriously all the “change” stuff he promised during his campaign. And he has been unable to make the transition from candidate to president.

 

A candidate says, as Bobby Kennedy did, “Some men look at things the way they are and ask why? I dream of things that are not and ask why not?”

A president says: “What do the polls say?”

A recent CNN poll found that 68 percent of Americans do not want a mosque built close to ground zero. Which should mean: End of story. That’s all she wrote. Let’s move on to the next crisis.

It appears, however, that at least on this occasion, Obama does not care what the polls say.

And his political opponents have been quick to take advantage of it. Sen. John Cornyn  of Texas, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday" that Obama demonstrated how “Washington, the White House, the administration, the president himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America. ... This is sort of the dichotomy that people sense, that they’re being lectured to — not listened to — and I think that’s the reason why a lot of people are very upset with Washington.”

Which may be true. You can go back to the mid-1800s and find a lot of legislators saying that Abe Lincoln should stop lecturing people about ending slavery and listen to them about keeping it.

And there were plenty of lawmakers who said President Dwight D. Eisenhower was “disconnected from the mainstream of America” when he ordered the 101st Airborne Division to go down to Little Rock, Ark., to make sure some black kids could go to school with white kids.

Both decisions may have been “off message,” which is about the worst sin you can commit in Washington. But what’s so wrong about being off message if you are right about the issue?

This: An unidentified chief of staff to a “politically vulnerable House Democrat” told James Hohmann and Maggie Haberman of POLITICO that Obama’s statement “probably alienates a lot of independent voters” and “there are a lot of [Democrats] who are spooked in tough districts today” and “a lot of Republicans licking their chops right now.”

And what’s the point of doing the right thing if your party is going to lose seats because of it?

Maybe Obama is disconnected. After all, as a former professor of constitutional law, he actually knows what the Constitution says.

His opponents have no such fetters. They know what they want the Constitution to say: yes to guns, no to gay marriage and never to mosques close to hallowed ground, though churches and synagogues are OK.

What’s so wrong with that? I’ll bet they poll great.

Roger Simon is POLITICO’s chief political columnist.

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