barack_black_caucus001
Up Front

Obama-Bashing: Today’s Most Fashionable Pursuit

Marvin Kalb

Obamacare? Think bigger.

Think Obama-bashing, which could of course include Obamacare.

Under Obama-bashing, now the most fashionable entertainment in Washington, everyone can take his turn ripping into the president for every sin in the DC catalogue. From his economic policy to his occasionally puzzling approach to the Syrian civil war, pundits of the right and left seem to have taken particular pleasure in lambasting Barack Obama. “Epic incompetence,” writes one columnist. “Unbelievably small” president, writes another.

Not even one year into his second term, Obama might strike a visitor from Mars as a total flop, a president who ought simply to retire to the nearest university, where he will no longer have the power to hurt the nation.

This judgment, negative in the extreme, is profoundly unfair. It reached its apotheosis during the Syrian crisis, when, after two years of dithering, as I wrote several months ago, repeatedly refusing to send arms and supplies to the rebels, the president suddenly shifted his position and threatened to attack Basher el-Assad’s regime for using sarin gas in mid-August against innocent civilians, killing about 1,400 of them, including 400 children. On his orders, the Pentagon moved ships, planes and missiles into the eastern Mediterranean. In one news conference after another, in one capital after another, Secretary of State Kerry sounded as if a U.S. attack was only days away. The sun seemed to freeze in the sky. Was the U.S. really going to plunge into another Mideast war?

Then, on a recent Saturday, the president again changed his mind, in the process dropping a huge political bombshell on the Capitol Hill doorstep during its summertime break. Obama now wanted congressional backing for his projected attack on Syria. If he was going to take the country into war, he wanted Congress to take some of the responsibility for this momentous decision. He began to sound like Lyndon Johnson in 1964, when the U.S. readied itself for the big splash into Vietnam.

What then happened? First, from their vacation haunts, senators and congressmen and women began to raise dozens of questions, all suggesting their constituents wanted no part of another war. Neither did they. After a decade of warfare, enough. A stunning humiliation of presidential power and authority loomed on the near horizon. Second, out of the diplomatic blue, seemingly unannounced, Russian President Vladimir Putin rode to Obama’s rescue—indeed, dramatically opened the door to a major big-power agreement to rid the world of Syria’s entire stockpile of chemical weapons and, in addition, to the possibility of restarting the Geneva conference on Syria’s political future.

Not a bad deal, by any diplomatic standard. And yet, though one might have imagined a chorus of approval for Obama’s skill or pot luck (take your pick), the intensity of the anti-Obama criticism only deepened and widened. It seemed as if the president could do nothing right. One example popped up on Capitol Hill, where Tea Party Republicans demanded stunning budget cuts and the defunding of Obamacare, seemingly oblivious to the danger that their demands, if met, could result in a government shutdown and, a few weeks later, in a default on government debt. Or, if not oblivious, then indifferent to their political fortunes. Obama, in a quick, defiant response, rejected these GOP demands. Once again, a Washington deadlock.

The last time the GOP leadership chose this cockeyed approach, defined even by some Republicans as “suicidal,” in the mid-1990’s, it lost the next election. Why play this movie again? The American people, judging by the polls, don’t appreciate it, and it’s very likely that Obama will emerge on top of the political pileup, just as Bill Clinton did almost 20 years ago.

But, even so, Obama still attracts one hurricane of criticism after another, even though, based on the evidence, he does not deserve it. He has made many mistakes, and, on occasion, he does come through as uncertain, even to his friends. The pundits seem most comfortable these days focusing on the negative about Obama, not the positive. Their words appear in newspaper op-ed pages, and their faces on cable television, as though their message imparts truth and people are to believe it.

The fact is, the president may be on the edge of a major diplomatic breakthrough on Syria, despite many obvious obstacles between here and there, and he may be on the edge of outmaneuvering his GOP critics on the budget.

Now doesn’t that deserve a pat on the back, even a grudging one?

Author