Obama abets public's memory lapse

Baltimore Sun

One of the first political themes of the new year is the speculation that President Barack Obama, after less than a year in office, is already on the skids, and that his Democratic Party is doomed to major defeats in November's congressional elections.

Such talk is widely heard despite the fact that it has also been less than a year since arguably one of American history's worst presidents left office, leaving in his wake two wars - one of which he unnecessarily started - and the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

Mr. Obama's own early performance undoubtedly has contributed to the speculation. As a matter of personal style or policy ambiguity, he has sounded a somewhat uncertain trumpet in his cool and calm response to the crises he faces. The buck, as Harry Truman liked to say, does stop at the president's desk.

But the apparent collective memory lapse of American voters about what had gone before, at least as those whose sentiments have been measured by the pollsters, may be a factor as well, perhaps inadvertently assisted by Mr. Obama himself.

His early edict to his own administration team and to Democrats in Congress to "look forward, not back" on the calamities of the previous gang in power, even to the point of discouraging investigations into its reckless foreign policy, has been a gift to the opposition party.

Largely relieving the Republicans in Congress and the departed GOP administration of any bothersome task of defending their conduct of executive power, they have been free to wage relentless attack on Mr. Obama. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been in the vanguard, most recently alleging that President Obama has been "trying to pretend we are not at war" against terrorism.

Fairly recent history supports the Republican hope that the fickleness of the American voter will work in their favor. Ever since one of the lowest points in GOP political annals - the landslide humiliation of party presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964 - voters have repeatedly let bygones be bygones.

Only four years after that debacle, in which the last rites of the GOP were widely said over the prone party, the vox populi put Republican Richard Nixon - soiled political goods if ever there was such a thing - into the Oval Office. Admittedly, Mr. Nixon was helped immensely by Democratic division over the Vietnam War, but he did win (albeit narrowly) over the hapless Hubert Humphrey.

Next, after Mr. Nixon and his corrupt vice president, Spiro Agnew, had brought the Republican Party to its knees in the Watergate era, the voters in 1980 put another Republican in the Oval Office. True enough, the glaring shortcomings of Democratic President Jimmy Carter, as well as the personal appeal of Ronald Reagan, made it easy for voters to put Mr. Nixon and Watergate behind them.

Now, a year after George W. Bush left the White House as the repudiated architect of an overreaching foreign policy amid an economic morass at home, contributing to the defeat of GOP nominee John McCain, the pollsters are telling us the Grand Old Party is rising from the ashes again.

Actually, it is not so much that the party itself is seeing a resurrection - its numbers are also dismal. Voter disenchantment with Mr. Obama appears to be making voting Republican a digestible option again, so soon after the Democratic recoveries at the polls in 2006 and 2008.

When Goldwater in 1964 was snowed under by Lyndon Johnson, many crepe-hangers of the day pronounced the death of the party of Lincoln. But as Mark Twain famously once observed that "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," so apparently can it be said once again of a bloodied but unbowed Republican Party.

If so, the Democrats and Mr. Obama himself can take a share of the credit by volunteering effectively to give the GOP a pardon for the previous eight years of Mr. Bush's destructive leadership.

The Democrats for years have been accused of being soft on defense. By ruling criticism of past GOP conduct in office off limits, Mr. Obama has undermined his own mild complaints of the Republican mess left on his doorstep. He needs to be reminded, as Mr. Dooley said, that politics ain't beanbag.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcov er@earthlink.net.

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