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Don't Sweat It

Obama sure looks to be in trouble, but we’ve seen this summertime hysteria before.

As the Dog Days of August descended upon us, there developed across the progressive chattering classes a deep sense of malaise bordering on depression, if not panic--much of it driven by fears about the leadership skills of Barack Obama. The polling numbers seemed to weaken every day, and Democratic unease was matched by growing glee on the airwaves of Fox and in Republican circles everywhere. 

Within ten weeks, however, Obama was elected president and joy returned to the land. 

Yes, dear reader, I am suggesting that this August's sense of progressive despair feels remarkably similar to last August's. This week last year, the Gallup Tracking Poll [1] had McCain and Obama in a statistical tie. The candidates were fresh from a joint appearance at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, which was widely viewed by progressives as a strategic error by Obama. More generally, Democratic confidence, so high earlier in the year, was sagging. "Liberals have been in a dither for several weeks now over Barack Obama's supposedly listless campaign performance following his return from Europe," influential blogger Kevin Drum summed up sentiments [2] at that time, "and as near as I can tell this turned into something close to panic." 

These doldrums dissipated by the time of the Democratic convention later in the month, but reemerged in September, when McCain actually moved ahead in some polls. And the diagnosis of the problem was typically that Obama was too passive, and wasn't articulating a clear enough message [3]. This should sound familiar to connoisseurs of contemporary progressive concerns about Obama. 

Now, this deja vu sensation I'm having obviously doesn't guarantee that the current struggles over health care reform and climate change will have as happy an ending as the presidential contest. But it may well provide a plausible argument for giving the president the benefit of the doubt today as we should have done a year ago. 

Part of the psychological problem now may be a matter of unrealistic expectations. Much of the trouble Obama has encountered in promoting his agenda has been entirely predictable. His approval ratings are gradually converging with the 2008 election results. Health care reform is a complicated challenge that threatens a lot of powerful interests and unsettles people happy with their current coverage. Major environmental initiatives lose steam in a deep recession. A new administration gradually begins to assume blame for bad conditions in the country. Republicans, adopting a faux populist tone, are fighting Obama tooth and nail. Democratic activists are frustrated by compromises and sick of having to put up with the Blue Dogs. The Senate is still the Senate, a monument to inertia, pettiness, and strutting egos. 

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