The reporters assembled Thursday morning to hear the results of a new poll measuring public attitudes toward President Obama did their best to ferret out nuggets of bad news. How durable is the president's high job-approval rating (63 percent) and higher-yet personal rating (73 percent)? One bit of bad news and the rainbow disappears? asked one scribe. What about the narrative Republicans are advancing that Obama is a weak president who can be pushed around? Another wondered how much of Obama's "halo effect" could be attributed to the nation's "historic self-congratulations" over the breakthrough his election represented.
But voters aren't in a self-congratulatory mood. They're worried about the economy, and the Obama that emerges in the data is a strong leader with convictions who has held up despite the battering he's gotten in the three months since taking office. Pressed to point to red flags for Obama in the numbers, Pew Research Center president Andy Kohut pleaded, "I'm trying, I'm trying." The poll was completed before controversy spiked this week over the release of torture memos and whether to hold Bush-era officials accountable. Obama had always danced around the issue, but then, in what seemed an abrupt reversal, said he would consider a truth commission if it were bipartisan and structured outside of Congress's normal hearing process, which sounds reasonable, but ignited such a partisan uproar that Obama backed off two days later.
If you're a Republican, a truth commission looks like retribution. The policy has been stopped, and now what's left is the blame game. Kohut cautioned that we don't know how the public would react to a full-blown investigation of the Bush-Cheney administration's methods over the years. When Bush left office, he was held in low regard with one exception: he kept the country safe. "There's a fair degree of tolerance for torture when people think they're being protected," Kohut said. More than four in 10 said those tactics are often or sometimes justified, views that do not match the outcry Obama is hearing from Democratic activists. Obama has said repeatedly, maybe too much so, that he doesn't want to be backward-looking. "He views this not unreasonably as a diversion from his agenda," says Bill Galston, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. "He's learning what all presidents learn: there are limits to agenda control. You do what is thrust upon you."
The flip side of Obama's cool and unperturbed demeanor is that he sometimes doesn't quite get the passions that are part of politics, or would rather set them aside in service of his larger vision. It became clear this week that he has to find a way for Democrats to vent the anger built up against an administration that many feel acted illegally, perhaps criminally. Galston is among those who believe that one way or another, there will have to be a commission. It took legislation to create the 9/11 inquiry and Republicans could filibuster to block the creation of a truth commission, but maybe not. Some Republicans think the memos released so far are not the full picture and that the whole story, when told, could make Bush critics rue the day they questioned what the former administration did to protect the country.
Despite the current controversy, Obama gets high marks; not an A, because we still have to wait for outcomes, but a solid B-plus. He has established himself in the office, the country is more upbeat, but the hard decisions are yet to come. The great asset he has is the collapse of the Republican Party. They have neither a credible message nor messenger. They're railing against big government, when the core issue is the failings of capitalism. They call for smaller government and berate Obama for moving toward socialism when people are not hungering for tax cuts. They're looking for jobs so they can pay taxes. Instead of developing alternative policies, they're back to attacking FDR. He won four elections. Politico reports that House Republicans have fastened on a new book, "The Forgotten Man," that celebrates Wendell Willkie and denigrates the New Deal. Willkie—a Wall Street industrialist who had never held elective office, was a decent-enough fellow but lost to Roosevelt by a landslide in 1940—is an unlikely hero on which to build a new GOP.
At a time of crisis, when Americans look to Washington for help, the GOP has reverted to an outmoded form of libertarianism, calling for government to get out of the way when, if government had been more watchful, we might not be in this mess. There are opportunities for Republicans in the public's apprehension over the rising deficit, and in the discomfort many feel over the various bailouts. But a party is not serious when its headliners are a radio talk-show host and a discredited former vice president. Newt Gingrich is back as a rising star and Republicans are battling FDR, giving the GOP a rather retro feel. That gives Obama lots of latitude looking forward.