The "Incompetence" of Audacity
Sunday, March 15th 2009, 4:00 AM
Not long ago, after a string of especially bad days for the Obama administration, a veteran Democratic pol approached me with a pained look on his face and asked, "Do you think they know what they're doing?"
The question caught me off guard because the man is a well-known Obama supporter. As we talked, I quickly realized his asking suggested his own considerable doubts.
Yes, it's early, but an eerily familiar feeling is spreading across party lines and seeping into the national conversation. It's a nagging doubt about the competency of the White House.
It was during George W. Bush's second term that the I-word - incompetence - became a routine broadside against him. The Democratic frenzy of Bush-bashing had not spent itself when a larger critique emerged, one not confined by partisan boundaries.
The charge of incompetence covered the mismanagement of Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina and the economic meltdown. By the time Bush left, the charge tipped the scales to where most of America, including many who had been supporters or just sympathetic, viewed him as a failed President.
The tag of incompetence is powerful precisely because it is a nondenominational rebuke, even when it yields a partisan result. It became the strongest argument against the GOP hammerlock on Washington and, over two elections, gave Democrats their turn at total control.
But already feelings of doubt are rising again. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were never held in high regard, so doubts about their motives and abilities are not surprising.
What matters more is the growing concern about Obama and his team. The longest campaign in presidential history is being followed by a very short honeymoon.
Polls show that most people like Obama, but they increasingly don't like his policies. The vast spending hikes and plans for more are provoking the most concern, with 82% telling a Gallup survey they are worried about the deficit and 69% worried about the rapid growth of government under Obama. Most expect their own taxes will go up as a result, despite the President's promises to the contrary.
None other than Warren Buffet, an Obama supporter, has called the administration's message on the economy "muddled." Even China says it is worried about its investments in American Treasury bonds. Ouch.
Much of the blame falls on Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, whose appalling tax problems softened the ground under him before he took office. After his initial fumbling presentations, he became a butt of jokes on "Saturday Night Live," not a sustainable image for the point man in a recession. And still the market waits for his answer to the banks' toxic assets.
It's also notable that four people lined up for top jobs under Geithner have withdrawn, leaving one British official to complain that there is nobody to talk to at the Treasury Department. Perhaps it was a bid to combat the Geithner blues that led Larry Summers, Obama's top economic adviser, to make an unusual appearance Friday in which he defended the spending plans everyone is so worried about.
Yet the doubts aren't all about Geithner, and they were reinforced by the bizarre nomination and withdrawal of Chas Freeman as a top intelligence official. It's hard to know which explanation is worse: that the White House didn't know of Freeman's intemperate criticism of Israel and his praise of China's massacre at Tiananmen Square, or that it didn't care. Good riddance to him. But what of those who picked him?
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: the doubts about Obama himself. His famous eloquence is wearing thin through daily exposure and because his actions are often disconnected from his words. His lack of administrative experience is showing.
His promises and policies contradict each other often enough that evidence of hypocrisy is ceasing to be news. Remember the pledges about bipartisanship and high ethics? They're so last year.
The beat goes on. Last week, Obama brazenly gave a speech about earmark reform just after he quietly signed a $410 billion spending bill that had about 9,000 earmarks in it. He denounced Bush's habit of disregarding pieces of laws he didn't like, so-called signing statements, then issued one himself.
And in an absolute jaw-dropper, he told business leaders, "I don't like the idea of spending more government money, nor am I interested in expanding government's role."
No wonder Americans are confused. Our President is, too.