Obama's reverting to rhetoric now that he has lost his mojo

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The Gazette, Monday, September 6, 2010

In Aaron Sorkin's screenplay The American President, Michael Douglas tells Annette Bening in the Oval Office that the White House is "the single greatest home-court advantage in the modern world."

Just so -it is the symbolic centre of an American president's power. For that reason, when a U.S. president makes a prime-time address to the American people from the Oval Office, he'd better have something important to say.

John F. Kennedy announced the Cuban missile crisis and naval blockade of Soviet ships from the same desk Barack Obama sat at last Tuesday when he declared the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. The same desk, as he pointed out, from which George W. Bush announced the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Except that Obama was a week late with the news -- the last American combat forces had left Iraq the previous week, leaving 50,000 of their colleagues behind to support the Iraqi government and security forces.

Earlier in the day, Obama had flown to Fort Bliss, Tex., so he could be seen on network newscasts shaking hands with the troops. On the way down, he called his predecessor on the phone, so that he could say in his speech he had called him from Air Force One.

What he had to say about Bush was as interesting for what he didn't say. Despite his own opposition to the war, Obama said no one doubted Bush's "support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security." A generous grace note, but one conspicuously lacking any reference to the Bush troop surge that stabilized Iraq, led by the same general, David Petraeus, whom Obama has asked to do the same with his own surge in Afghanistan.

In nearly two years in office, Obama has used the Oval Office as a speech venue only twice -- once on the Gulf oil spill, and again last week.

He didn't really have much new to say in either TV address. In the first instance, he wanted to persuade Americans that he was on top of the situation, and holding BP to account. In the second, there was nothing newsworthy at all; it was just about repositioning, or as Obama put it, "time to turn the page" from Iraq to the economy. As for Afghanistan, now Obama's war, he repeated his vow to begin a drawdown there next summer because "as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves."

He didn't need to go on national television to announce any of that; he'd already announced it. But lately, Obama appears to have lost his mojo, and so has gone back to what worked for him in the beginning -rhetoric. He began as the candidate of hope and change, and is having a hard time delivering on either.

Part of it is the persistently poor economic news, and part of it is the gridlocked culture of Washington, especially in an election year. Obama's Democrats are expected to take a huge hit in the midterm congressional elections. Why would the Republicans want to make him look good? Because he's the president? Welcome to the majors.

It's the weak economic recovery, and 9.5-per-cent unemployment that are really driving Obama's approval numbers in the wrong direction. Fourteen million Americans are out of work, and millions more have given up looking. With a deficit that's 11 per cent of GDP, and the federal debt expected to exceed 100 per cent of GDP in 2012, Obama has no room for any more fiscal stimulus. He needs to count on the Federal Reserve, and its chair Ben Bernanke, for more stimulus through monetary policy.

Meanwhile, Obama seems to have lost his sense of occasion. When he came into office at the bottom of the recession, he said it was no time to redecorate the Oval Office. Things aren't much better, but he returned from vacation to an Oval Office makeover that included a carpet with the requisite presidential seal and a border with quotations from the likes of JFK and Martin Luther King.

Hey, nice office you got there, Mr. President. Mind if we check out the rug?

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