Can Obama Fend Off the 'Failure' Attacks?

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Obama leaves the podium after speaking about financial reform at the White House on Jan. 21, 2010

At last week's annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where thousands of conservative activists packed into a cavernous Washington hotel, the mood was bright and the confidence overflowing. Veteran operatives, grizzled reporters and scores of young political field troops joining the fray for the first time all saw the same thing during three days of bold body language and zinging speeches: that the right, only recently declared to be on its last legs, is on the march. There was a buoyant certainty among the faithful that President Obama will score no major legislative victories in 2010, that Republicans will rout the opposition in November's midterm elections and that, as Dick Cheney assured the crowd, Obama will be a one-term President.

The former Vice President, fired up and ready to go (in his own distinctively muted fashion), strode in unannounced and received a rowdy hero's welcome. As much as Bush-Cheney disappointed conservatives with their loose fiscal policy and assorted missteps, the right is now positively nostalgic for the good old days of the not too long ago.

In fact, one prominent potential 2012 presidential candidate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, paid more homage to the Bush-Cheney legacy in his CPAC remarks than he typically did on the stump during his failed 2008 run for the White House. But the more important meme from Romney's speech — and the one that poses the most danger to the incumbent President and the Democratic Party — was the repeated claim that Obama already can be judged a "failure" in the job after just 13 months in office.

This line of attack — that Obama has demonstrated he isn't up to managing the economy, national security and virtually every other part of being President — found a rapturous reception from the CPAC throng. Romney's national campaign was a flailing disappointment, yet he dismissed Obama's entire record with full-throated conviction. His remarks were greeted with unbridled glee.

It is clear that the thunderous reaction to this Obama-as-failure thesis represents the current mood of the conservative rank and file, talk-radio hosts and Republican candidates throughout the land, and that they are likely to keep up the theme straight through the midterms — both because it is a powerful rallying cry and because they genuinely believe it. But surprisingly, facing such a united, unshakeable, on-message opposition isn't even Obama's biggest challenge right now.

What's more problematic for the President than the derision of his enemies is the waning confidence of his friends. Many members of the left (including some Democrats in Congress) and a solid segment of the media (including those who have consistently swooned over Obama since his earliest days as a national figure) are now assessing his Administration in the same gloomy way as those CPAC activists.

The left, of course, has a totally different set of reasons why they think Obama's presidency so far has been unsuccessful, but its bottom-line analysis is the same: that Obama has neglected to fulfill the promises he made when he was running for office, that he has largely wasted his first year in the White House, that his advisers don't know what they are doing and that it is in some ways too late to salvage his agenda.

Senior Democratic Senators whisper that the Administration is clueless about how to get things done. Liberal bloggers openly express contempt for what they say is incompetence compounded by misguided priorities. The respected Washington wise man Les Gelb, former head of the Council of Foreign Relations, channeled the Beltway's conventional wisdom when he wrote that a full-scale personnel shake-up is the only way Obama can save his presidency. The media has largely shaken off its febrile Obamamania and adopted a "can't this gang shoot straight?" posture toward nearly every Administration action, reverting to the standard reflexive skepticism of the Washington press corps. The shared subtext is most dangerous of all: that perhaps the country elected someone who was all about hope and change but not, in fact, ability. It means real trouble for Obama when Sarah Palin can slyly inquire, "How's that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?" and even some liberals nod their heads knowingly.

An iron law of politics is that a body in motion tends to remain in motion — as long as the motion is downward. Right now, despite Obama's having helped save the world economy from falling into depression, having passed a round of important legislation on such issues as children's health and equal pay for women, and having effectively managed the national-security challenges he inherited, the people who control the vast majority of the political discourse across all platforms are nearly uniform in their belief that the political health of Obama's presidency is at best grim and at worst — in the analysis of Mitt Romney, Dick Cheney and other notable critics — a doomed, unredeemable failure.

The only way for Obama to turn his presidency around is to change this perception. And the only way to change this perception is to rack up some wins. After November's losses in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races, Scott Brown's stunning capture of Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat, a spate of Democratic congressional retirements, the stalling of health care, consistently nerve-wracking economic news and steadily falling national and state presidential poll numbers, finding some political or policy victories to sweep aside the clammy shroud of failure is not going to be easy.

Obama can fight for a breakthrough — bipartisan or otherwise — on health care or education, display a muscular handling of an unexpected foreign policy crisis or recruit some significant new blood into his Administration. Maybe he'll get lucky and see some long-awaited improvement of the economy, in terms of jobs and wages.

Throughout his life, Barack Obama has succeeded in almost everything he has ever tried. And his frustration with his current circumstances — especially the blatant political unwillingness of Republicans to work with him, even on matters on which they agree — is totally understandable and justified. But such realities are no use to him now.

Obama's critics only have it half right. His presidency is in crisis. But it isn't too late to turn things around. The President may be more of a basketball man than a football fan, but he needs to heed the advice of two great gridiron coaches to head off Cheney's confident prediction. "The future is now," George Allen used to say. And, in the words of Al Davis, "Just win, baby."