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His cool gone, Obama needs to show competence [Commentary]

Until recently, one thing about Barack Obama that voters could count on was his coolness — that through all tribulation he would remain unflappable and steadfast. He was notably able to retain his composure in the face of unremitting partisan opposition. His self-confidence and optimism always kept him on course.

But on two recent major policy matters, the president conspicuously second-guessed himself. First, he decided to go to Congress before going to war against Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons, and now he has retreated on certain terms of his embattled health-care insurance law.

The first sudden reversal calmed war fears and so far at least has held out hope of unanticipated success in achieving the surrender of Bashar Assad's chemical weapons cache. The second backtrack, however — offering to allow continuation of certain individual health insurance policies that don't meet the minimum standards of his Affordable Care Act — seems only to have opened a new can of worms.

The latter flip-flop not only has cracked a new breach with the insurance industry; it also has raised new questions about Mr. Obama's own managerial abilities, his political skills and, yes, his trustworthiness. His categorical assurance that Americans could keep their existing health-care policies if they liked them has blown up in his face. At least one prominent poll has found more than half of those surveyed saying he was not honest.

Such a public judgment has been the kiss of death for many a politician, or at least a troublesome albatross. Richard Nixon labored through his long, checkered career labeled "Tricky Dick." Even Bill Clinton had to overcome his reputation as "Slick Willie" as he endured impeachment for lying about a sex scandal.

Mr. Obama in one sense has become a victim of his own self-assurance. He has relied on his image of himself as a careful and pragmatic politician to sustain his credibility, often through inspirational oratory that nurtures public dreams, aspirations and confidence. His 2008 promise to deliver "change you can believe in" zeroed in on the idea that here was an honest man whose word you could take to the bank.

That modus operandi was able to carry Mr. Obama only so far. After a first term in which the ambitious promise failed to produce much basic change in the way government worked, Mr. Obama and Co. were obliged to rely on eroding the credibility of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, to win re-election.

With considerable help from the rich but politically hapless business leader, Mr. Obama painted Mr. Romney as insensitive to the broad American middle class, and it worked. But now Mr. Obama's own competence is under fire in the health-care fiasco, particularly in his lengthy mea culpa that revealed his awareness of the political stakes involved.

The president's open acceptance that the buck stops at his desk is a candid recognition that aloofness will not sustain him through the current political crisis. But it will take more than presidential words to extricate him. More than ever, he needs the health plan now widely named after him to deliver on its promises of better and more affordable care for millions more Americans.

As the president notes, his name will not be on the ballot again. But the success or failure of Obamacare between now and next year's congressional elections may well determine whether the Democrats can increase their numbers on Capitol Hill. The same polls that reflect Obama's own lower public standing have been even more damaging to the Republicans, assessing them principal blame for the previous 16-day government shutdown. It's an advantage, however, that now may be slipping.

The loyalty of congressional Democrats to their embattled president will be tested as Republicans offer their own legislative escape valves from the public discontent with Obamacare. The self-preservation instinct usually trumps all else in politics, and the Democrats who have to face the voters every two years may be wary of hitching their fortunes to a leader whose magnetism is waning.

Yet, in the end, the best hope of saving their own seats may be in sticking with Obama through what has become a personal political crisis for him, and by extension for them as well.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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