Obama in no man’s land

As President Barack Obama summoned Gen. Stanley McChrystal for his perp walk at the White House on Wednesday morning, Republicans were largely silent, for once. But Democrats and party liberals weren’t defending Obama, just attacking McChrystal and his counterinsurgency strategy the president had embraced. Within the competing factions in burgeoning disagreement over Afghan war policy in his administration, Obama has tried taking shelter in the middle, his habitual no man’s land where he is neither wartime commander nor consensus builder. In deciding to relieve McChrystal, Obama cannot be accused of weakness, but the scandal weakened him instantly and immeasurably and made him appear even more alone. 

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In a foundering war our allies have lost patience with, and a fragile economic recovery that has failed to make a dent in joblessness, Obama struggles to lead at home and abroad. Seventeen months into office, Obama is increasingly isolated — from his party, from American voters and from the world. Though he was sworn in amid great expectations to transcend partisan, racial, cultural and economic divisions, the country is more polarized than ever and Washington is even more a target for voter anger than it was under President Bush. Polls show majorities of Americans do not believe Obama has a clear plan for creating jobs, or to deal with the oil spill, and they oppose remaining in Afghanistan. And while America’s standing in the world has improved, Obama foreign policy has produced mixed results. Obama is so politically toxic in battlegrounds he can’t campaign for most Democratic candidates and his relationships with Democrats outside his intimate circle of mostly Chicagoan advisers fall somewhere between faint and frosty.

In recent weeks Obama’s economic agenda has run up against a new reality in Congress — Democrats have joined Republicans with a newfound distaste for deficit spending. So spooked are Democrats from every region of the country, mostly vulnerable members elected in 2006 and 2008, they are turning their backs on unpaid emergency spending to extend COBRA health benefits for the unemployed and continued unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states that can’t be offset with other spending cuts. Jobs bills are stalling, and a debate about the extension of Bush tax cuts — including those promised to the middle class by then-candidate Obama in his presidential campaign — it’s all on the table in the new age of fiscal rectitude. 

Meanwhile, the Greek debt crisis has inexorably altered the deficit climate overseas as well. Last week Obama sent a letter to the G-20 nations set to gather this week in Toronto, warning against the risk of austere budget policies impeding economic recovery. “It is critical that the timing and pace of consolidation in each economy suit the needs of the global economy, the momentum of private-sector demand and national circumstances. We must be flexible in adjusting the pace of consolidation and learn from the consequential mistakes of the past when stimulus was too quickly withdrawn and resulted in renewed economic hardships and recession,” Obama wrote. We’ll see how closely France, Germany, Spain and England — all embarking on cuts — listen to Obama’s advice. Similar warnings about why “we must take these emergency measures” were issued in his letter to the Congress just days before and have thus far been ignored. 

In recent days Obama has traveled to promote the stimulus program, which polls show is so overwhelmingly unpopular that the number of Americans who believe the law will create jobs barely registers in surveys. With McChrystal gone Obama will have to turn his attention again to the unpopular war, to try once more to make the sale. Who will buy it? 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.