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Neither substance nor style

Posted: September 21, 2013 - 12:28pm

When it comes to policy, President Barack Obama told ABC News he is “less concerned about style points.” He’d better be way more concerned about his style unless he wants to see his presidency continue to point downward. Right now, his enemies are getting lots of traction promoting the view that Obama has become a dithering chief executive, floundering over major policies from health-care reform’s employer mandate to Syria. At the very same time, he’s attacked by his opponents as dictatorial, and even his usual supporters call him heavy-handed when it comes to punishing leaks and approving massive electronic surveillance of Americans. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

What is becoming a self-fulfilling narrative is that fewer and fewer are scared of him.

Fellow Democrats in the Senate made it so clear that they’d defy his wishes to confirm Larry Summers to head the Federal Reserve that Summers “withdrew” his name. The power to intimidate is an essential part of any top guy’s arsenal. But more and more, friend and foe alike are blithely willing to tell him “no.” He faced a humiliating rejection of his plan to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its murderous chemical-weapons attacks. When he changed course and decided he’d seek congressional approval, a majority — Democrats as well as Republicans — was all set to tell him, to use a New York phrase, “fuhgedaboudit!” The obvious damage that would have caused to the nation’s prestige and to him personally meant little to the rebellious ones even in his own party. The fact that the Russians had to bail him out just added to the hit his reputation took. Then Vladimir Putin took delight in adding insult to injury with a condescending New York Times op-ed.

Clearly, other world leaders no longer regard him Barack Obama the rock-star awe they did when he first swept into office on a carpet of acclaim. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is the latest to pull the rug out from under him by blowing off an official visit to Washington, which would have come with one of those glittering White House dinners that heads of state covet. Thanks, but no thanks, said President Rousseff. She’s merely one of the world leaders who is bent out of shape over disclosures that her phone calls and emails were being monitored by the snoop spooks at the National Security Agency. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel also is indignant.

It doesn’t help his cause that millions of Americans whose every communication has been swept up by the NSA vacuum also are grossly offended. The U.S. spy types blame Edward Snowden’s leaks for creating a worldwide embarrassment. Many others say they just don’t get it, that it’s the actual cyber intrusions that are what’s mortifying. They contend Obama is leaving an impression that for all his lofty rhetoric about citizen protections and his law-professor background, he has been taken in by an intelligence establishment that never saw a constitutional right it wasn’t willing to violate.

To be fair, the president is not the only U.S. leader who’s being overrun. It’s tempting to pity House Speaker John Boehner and his team, desperately maneuvering to help the members of their party not do harm to themselves, to say nothing of the country. The rank and foul are so single-mindedly intent on blowing up Obamacare that they’re not to be denied. Even the plaintive pleas from Boehner and the others that being unyielding on defunding health care will cause a government shutdown and/or a national debt default, and that the party will suffer a huge backlash, hasn’t stopped the hard-liners from defiantly passing the defunding legislation.

What has largely salvaged the Obama presidency has been the extremist excess of the opposition and what he calls their “extortion.” That charge simply adds fuel to extortionists’ fire. Forget about “style points.” For more and more people, faith in our leaders seems pointless.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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