- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2010


Accepted wisdom in Washington is that Barack Obama is a weakened president whose party faces a mini tsunami

during November’s elections largely because of high unemployment and a new health law that most voters dislike.

If only it were so easy to predict.

In fact, no one knows how many Democratic seats will be lost in Congress because the events that will dictate the outcome of the midterm elections probably have not yet transpired. A president’s popularity - and the popularity of his party - are determined by politicians’ reactions to circumstances that still hover out there in the future.

We are not near enough to know what events and what reactions will matter most.

What we do know is that not much is happening that would give Democrats cause for celebration.

The health reform law is still a loser politically. The president and his fellow Democrats aren’t spending much time crowing about it - as they had promised they would.

The economy is showing signs of revival, but those signs don’t yet include the most important measure: unemployment. The best guess among economists is that unemployment will remain frighteningly high come the autumn, when voters begin to decide for whom to vote.

That won’t help the Democrats, either.

But remember, the events that almost surely will impact the elections have not yet occurred. Political leadership is demonstrated in response to crises. We only have an inkling of what those might be.

The biggest probably is the menacing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And there’s not much good news (so far) for the president.

The administration clearly was slow off the mark in deciding that the leakage from the BP site was a catastrophe in the making. President Obama even delayed visiting the region until after he delivered a stand-up-comic routine, in black tie, to a bunch of reporters in Washington.

The performance has echoes of President George W. Bush looking down at the disaster of Hurricane Katrina through the window of Air Force One as it flew over. The detachment Mr. Bush demonstrated by that act became a political albatross that dragged down his popularity.

If the Gulf Coast and its fragile ecosystem are soiled by the spill, the people in power will suffer the greatest political damage. It’s hard to see how Democrats come out ahead in any scenario that includes oil hitting the beaches.

Then there’s the self-inflicted wound by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, over immigration. Mr. Reid rushed to say the Senate would take up immigration reform quickly, especially in the wake of Arizona’s tough anti-illegal-immigrant law.

He was forced to back off that timing, but the issue nonetheless is on the griddle and can’t be taken off. The Democrats always have had to play catch-up on the issue, and recent polls indicate that’s still true. A recent Gallup poll showed that a slight majority of Americans actually like the Arizona crackdown law as opposed to the more lenient proposal floated by the Democrats.

How Mr. Obama plays immigration now will be important in border states, but his options clearly are limited.

Even the threat of terrorism, which normally strengthens the hand of the party in power, has been fumbled by the Obama administration.

The president’s reaction to the attempted bombing in Times Square was not designed to instill feelings of security in the populace. It was not until days after the bombing failed that an FBI-led task force took over the investigation. It took that long for the administration to determine that international terrorism probably was involved.

Then there’s the brawl that will take place almost no matter whom Mr. Obama nominates for the Supreme Court. Even his most benign choice will lead to a fight that will portray Washington at its ugliest.

It’s hard to look to be in charge while duking it out amid that kind of mess.

Mr. Obama may well find ways to show how presidential he can be in the face of tough decisions. So far, though, he hasn’t been given much that he’s been able to work with.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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