Opinion

Commentary: Obama's stubborn streak is showing

President Barack Obama speaks with the media.
President Barack Obama speaks with the media. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

President Barack Obama has a persona that seems made for politics. He's fluid, even-tempered, good-humored — the very picture of a balanced personality.

But he also has an inflexible streak. It's becoming more apparent as his term progresses, and it could lead to his undoing.

He showed it last year during the campaign. Even as the success of the troop surge in Iraq became undeniable, Obama remained rooted to his position that the policy was futile and bound to fail.

And last week he doggedly held to his dream of "engagement" with Iran's mullahs, even as the struggle over the disputed June 12 election widened to encompass a pivotal body of clerics based in the city of Qom. This important group, the Association of Religious Scholars, essentially pronounced the election results invalid.

But the outstanding example of his inflexibility is his continued refusal to adjust his domestic agenda.

Last fall, the economy dropped into a void. The tectonic plates of the financial world shifted. Financial institutions with storied histories and generations of stability vanished. Jobs disappeared by the hundreds of thousands.

But Obama held fast to his "transformative" agenda. In the changed circumstances, the obvious imperative was to stabilize the economy first and worry about the particulars of his program later.

But no. He marched before Congress and called for action on a long list of items that had nothing to do with economic recovery, including a system of carbon limits and health-care reform.

Here's the odd thing. Obama may be inflexible when it comes to his broad agenda, but when it comes to dealing with Congress he's downright passive. This tendency was dramatically illustrated during the debate over the stimulus package.

Obama called for a stimulus in broad terms and then farmed out the details to the lawmakers. Go ahead, he said. Write pretty much whatever you want. The result was a $787 billion travesty that will undermine the nation's fiscal health while doing more to stimulate government and the political careers of majority Democrats than the economy.

He did the same thing on cap and trade, and what oozed out was another monster – a bloated, ramshackle legislative horror of 1,200 pages, brimming with regulations on everything from building codes to light bulbs, while its supporters continued to tell us that making people pay more for fuel and electricity will help the economy.

Even in the health-care bills taking shape in Congress, the members are finding ways to serve up the pork. Early drafts include big dollops of money for walking paths, streetlights, playground equipment and farmers markets.

Voters notice such things. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans, by a 2-1 ratio, say their "political views in recent years have become more conservative rather than more liberal, 39 percent to 18 percent, with 42 percent saying they have not changed."

Clearly, some people have changed their position since the election. But that's not all. In what the Obama White House should consider a warning shot, the president's job approval in the key state of Ohio has been falling rapidly. This matters, because Ohio is a bellwether. In presidential races, it has voted for the loser only twice since 1900.

As recently as May, Obama's job approval was a hefty 62 percent. But in the most recent poll it dropped to 49 percent, with 44 disapproving.

The political debate is shifting from the sunny uplands of hope and change – and the rosy future that many projected onto Obama's candidacy – to the more treacherous terrain of hard choices and their likely consequences. A growing number of voters don't like what they see.

Unless the economy turns around by next summer, this administration will be heading into a congressional election that could apply the brakes to Obama's dreams of "transformation" at our expense.

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