Opinion: Time’s short for Obama

If President Obama is defeated next fall, as he would be if the election were held today, he will remember this week as either the end of his bad beginning or the beginning of his bad end.

Millions of Americans are out of work, and a terrible number of them will never again be employed in secure or desirable jobs. Across the country, a rash of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires have devastated many lives this year alone, many of those same lives already devastated by a crippled economy. There is little money to help the displaced and rebuild decimated housing and infrastructure as state and local governments continue to cut budgets and jobs. Even the Postal Service may close its door by year’s end. For many, America isn’t just deteriorating, it is becoming unrecognizable. 

The president of the United States who won election promising to quell a crisis has not. He who promised to embrace “the fierce urgency of now” has not. Now, amid slow-to-no economic growth and a month without any job growth whatsoever, he has promised another speech. Announced a month ago, before the president left for vacation, it now follows an embarrassing spat with the GOP House Speaker, a 59-point jobs plan by presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a Republican presidential debate. It will also come just before the opening game of football season. 

The piteously botched timing of Obama’s jobs speech is of his own making. But the substance is also likely to flop. Presidents don’t create jobs, but presidents can’t say that. Obama takes to the rostrum Thursday night in the House of Representatives before a deeply polarized Congress with Democrats urging him to fight hard for deficit spending to jump-start the economy that has no chance of passing the Congress and Republicans rejecting most of his proposals out of hand. 

In reality, Obama has tried both to fight and to cooperate. He stuck to his promise to cover the uninsured, pushing unpopular healthcare reform and paying dearly for it. When he compromised, extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and breaking a campaign pledge, he paid for that as well. This summer he left the political reservation once more, joining Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerWe need more congressional oversight on matters of war A warning to Ryan’s successor: The Speakership is no cakewalk With Ryan out, let’s blow up the process for selecting the next Speaker MORE (R-Ohio) in an initial attempt at cutting Medicare in talks that later fell apart, only after outraging labor and much of the Democratic Party. Last week Obama suddenly reversed course on new emissions standards, stunning many in his own administration and the entire environmental community. Fighting — and, conversely, capitulating — seemed to have gotten Obama nowhere. The right and left don’t understand his governing philosophy and neither does the middle he badly needs to win back. Obama’s poll ratings are now abysmal — according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, more than 60 percent of respondents disapprove of his handling of the economy, and even “two-thirds of those who voted for Obama say things are badly off course.”

The window is closing for the economy to improve significantly before Obama faces the voters again. And as desperation and anguish grow, Obama’s steely calm no longer matches the times. In the days and months to come, Obama has a short time left to change his story. Was he a president desperately upset about how the economy has damaged the nation and trying everything he could, or was he a president worried more about getting reelected? No matter his rhetoric or carefully chosen words, the tax cuts or infrastructure spending he proposes, Americans will soon know which president he was.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.