Obama's Test: Win Back a Nation's Confidence

Americans still like him, but question his policies

By Howard Fineman
|  Wednesday, Oct 13, 2010  |  Updated 12:52 PM CDT
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Obama's Test: Win Back a Nation's Confidence

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President Obama needs a powerful State of the Union performance to win back the confidence of Americans.

WASHINGTON - One year and one week ago, Barack Obama stood on the steps of the Capitol to give his inaugural address. His challenge then was to re-inspire Americans’ confidence in themselves. Tonight, inside that building, his challenge is to re-inspire their confidence in him.

A year into his presidency, we are less sure than ever who he really is — what he believes, what’s in his heart and gut — and whether he has what it takes to be president.

The reason has less to do with his famously cool persona — though that is part of it — than with the decisions he made after those early efforts to help stave off a global economic catastrophe.

Early in his presidency, and even before he was even sworn in, Obama made some fundamental — and almost certainly correct — calls.

Facing global meltdown, he accepted the Bush administration’s basic strategy, which was to throw as much money and credit as possible at the crisis. In his inauguration speech, he offered his own victory as a plausible reason for faith in national progress. And, finally, his administration administered “stress tests” to major banks, which helped restore confidence in the system. A run had been a real possibility.

So his biography and bank-crisis choices did, in fact, instill a sense of confidence that in turn produced the high point of his popularity. But neither his personal story nor his early decisions said much about who he really was.

'A hologram of hope'
Riding a tide of celebrity, generation change and voter dismay about Iraq and the crumbling economy, Obama always was more of a hologram of hope than a detailed agenda. And in the days since those early — and mostly unavoidable — decisions, his missteps and missed signals have led to one of the sharpest first-year poll drops in presidential history.

Many of the same voters who proudly cast ballots for the cool-headed and inspiring candidate from Illinois are now those casting doubt on what, precisely, he stands for.

Is he for the Little Guy or the Big Boys? Is he for individual initiative of the marketplace, or the redistributive power of government? Is he alive to the realities of street corner and strip mall America, or is he too much the theorizing, Ivy-credentialed son of globe-trotting academics?

Does he have good political sense, or was he just lucky?

Obama remains personally popular; it's his policies and tactical calls that are making people doubt him as president.

In his inaugural speech, Obama sounded like he understood that Americans tend not to trust Big Government any more than they admire Big Business. But he hasn’t acted that way. He piled on program after program in ways that scared away the moderate voters who elected him.

He ran as an agent of profound, fundamental change in the way Washington worked, but got lost in a thicket of health care deals and pork-barrel spending in his stimulus package.

 

He spent all of his domestic political capital on health care — and turned its fate over to a Congress — making a double mistake that called into question his reputation as a guy with shrewd political sense and good timing.

And now, he is calling for a three-year semi-freeze on federal spending, a gimmicky notion he had rightly ridiculed during the campaign. It's a move that makes him look desperate, and it has further offended his core supporters on the political left, who were mad at him for a host of other reasons.

The volumes of analysis written about the president are rife with the cliché that the guy’s career is made up of career-making or career-saving speeches. He had better hope that the one he gives tonight follows in that tradition.

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