Jon Meacham: The Winter of Our Discontent

They knew it would happen. "I told the president a year ago that, given the economic forecasts, his standing would be less in about a year," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod told me in the aftermath of the Democrats' losing Edward Kennedy's Senate seat for the first time since 1952. Obama's reaction to Axelrod's remark? "He acknowledged it, but it's one thing to talk about in theory and another to live through it." The president, Axelrod adds, is as unflappable as ever, but the political and economic turmoil of the moment is, to put it mildly, far from fun: "Who wouldn't want to govern at 70 percent instead of 50?"

One reason for the White House's dispiriting winter is its failure to make the connection between policy and people very clear—or, in some cases, clear at all. On a deeper and more fundamental level, however, the Massachusetts vote, the death of broad health-care reform, and the president's dark political hour are about more than the usual tactical wars of Washington. As we argue in our cover package this week, the prevailing view of Obama in the popular political mind—that he is a runaway radical—is wrong, and many Americans, liberal, conservative, and in between, are living in an alternate universe in which Obama is a crazed socialist who is taming the people before he turns us into—what? France? The Netherlands?

This drama is curiously disconnected from the reality of what the president is in fact proposing to do. What happened? How did the transformational candidate of 2008 come to find himself in such an unenviable political position, one in which he is being judged—harshly—not on the merits of his ideas but on the broad impression that he is taking the country too far left, and trying to do too much, too soon? In our cover, Fareed Zakaria, Jacob Weisberg, Joe Scarborough, Louisa Thomas, and I all venture our thoughts. In the meantime, here is Axelrod's view of the matter:

Fair enough—and less defensive than many White Houses at similar moments. Part of the storyline right now—of the overreaching Democrat being pulled back to the center—is seductive because it is a storyline we know from 1966 and 1994. The problem for 2010 is that Obama never left the center, so he can hardly be pulled back to the place he never left.

Still, Obama has failed a key test of democratic leadership: the task of communicating and convincing a significant number of his countrymen of the wisdom of what he wants to accomplish. Given the president's oratorical gifts, this is an odd development, but there we are.

Conservatives will quickly say that this is liberal denial, that the problem is not the style but the substance, not the messaging but the message. That is surely possible. The preponderance of Obama's proposals is so essentially centrist, though, that many a Republican president would find himself pretty close to Obama on the issues. If the president does not find his way forward, we could learn whether that is true sooner than many people expected.