Barack Obama is trying to be the new FDR before the concrete settles around his image as the new Jimmy Carter. History will ultimately decide, but last week’s celebrated health care summit made him look more like Mr. Jimmy than FDR.
The president was full of self-righteous talk, mostly about himself, and he twice felt it necessary to remind everyone that he’s the president, recalling Richard Nixon’s bizarre reassurance that he was not a crook. Some things are self-evident, and if they’re not, such things are usually not true. We can stipulate that, like it or not, he’s the president.
The Democrats relished the opportunity to portray the Republicans as the wrinkled party of “no,” a crabby relic of the 20th century, devoid of anything that anybody could want, and Barack Obama’s low-church eloquence would melt skepticism like butter on warm toast. But it didn’t happen. Setting out the idea of a plain and simple alternative to Obamacare — smaller measures to reform, taken step by step — the Republicans sounded like the party of common sense, purveyors of the kind of kitchen-table solution that would work a lot better than an elaborate welfare-state scheme.
The health care summit was not the demolition derby the Democrats expected, instead it’s a pothole the president and his party will have difficulty climbing out of. The first public-opinion polls this week will measure who won and who lost. But the prospect of a lot of changed minds in the wake of the talkfest is a small prospect.
The president was in his favorite role, the long-winded professor trying hard to be patient with half-bright students who hadn’t done their homework. Like most liberals, he suffers from a severe occupational hazard. Anyone who disagrees with him must be dumb, unlettered and redneck crazy. If Lamar Alexander, John McCain and Eric Cantor had only gone to the right Ivy League university they could understand the prescription for what’s good for them. It’s a fatal mindset that afflicts the cult. Jonathan Chait of New Republic put it plainly in a revealing blog post: “President Obama is so much smarter and a better communicator than members of Congress in either party. The contrast, side by side, is almost ridiculous.”
The contrast was so stark that he could only liken the professor’s summit seminar to basketball, our least cerebral sport, where oversized men in gaudy underwear run up and down a court to stuff a ball down a hole. The president is “treating [Republicans] really nice, letting his teammates take shots and allowing the other team to try to score. ‘Nice try, Timmy, you almost got it in.’ But after a couple minutes I want him to just grab the ball and dunk on these clowns already.”
No one would have confused FDR — or Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan — with somebody shooting hoops on a schoolyard. Nor would anyone have confused one of those presidents with a professor showing off his mastery of detail and trivia by presiding over a congressional seminar. Mr. Obama should remind himself that he’s the president, not a professor.
The president who would be FDR has squandered much of his authority and mystique in pursuit of something the people clearly don’t want. The more he pursues it the more the people don’t want it. He has yet to understand any of the parts of “no.” He is learning too late, if he is learning at all, that too much of a good thing is too much. The powerful hold a president can have on the public is weakened by too much visibility. “The public psychology,” FDR once wrote to a friend, “cannot be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note on the scale.”
Mr. Obama’s profligate use of the highest note on the scale follows the example of his immediate predecessors, and it may be that the presidential mystique, with its power to accomplish a president’s aims, was gravely wounded by the invention of the jet airplane. Air Force One is not only an impressive presidential icon, it makes every congressional district convenient to visit, and presidents are tempted to use it ever more frequently. In his 15 years in the White House, FDR, who preferred trains and was the first president to fly, never got around to visiting all the states.
A visit by a president meant something. Now it’s often a hindrance and a distraction. Last week, Mr. Obama should have stood in bed. That may be the ultimate lesson from his great health care summit.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.