This is the summer of Barack Obama's discontent. As the president vacations with his family on Martha's Vineyard, angry storm clouds are darkening the sky, inundating him with intractable issues that he cannot escape, even on his island retreat.
The leaping optimism that greeted his election is dwindling steadily as harsh reality settles in. Yes We Can has been replaced by a more modest set of maxims: Have Patience. Governing Requires Compromise. We Inherited a Lot of Problems. We're Doing Our Best.
The latest Washington Post/ABC survey reflects this changing mood. Obama's personal approval still stands at a hefty 57 percent, but that's down 12 points from April. Only 49 percent have confidence that he'll make the right decisions for the country, and 55 percent think events are headed down the "wrong track."
Some of this decline was inevitable, but this week brought an unusual flurry of rising indexes that signaled bad news from casualties in Afghanistan and deficits in Washington to temperatures in the world's oceans. And while the president is right to say many of these problems started years ago, he has to take responsibility for solving them. The buck stops at Martha's Vineyard.
The largest shadow over Obama's vacation is cast by Afghanistan. The New York Times recently ran a chilling headline: "Could Afghanistan Become Obama's Vietnam?" And The Economist was even more declarative: "Afghanistan. The Growing Threat of Failure."
Casualty figures for foreign troops are approaching 300 this year the largest annual toll since the war began in 2001. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, called the situation on the ground "serious and deteriorating." A presidential election has produced no clear winner, and furious charges of fraud are injecting a new note of instability.
Obama has called Afghanistan a "war of necessity" that "is fundamental to the defense of our people." But those people are not listening: 51 percent of Americans say the war is no longer worth fighting, while in Great Britain, two of three want their soldiers out. If the president's military advisers ask for even more troops, as now seems likely, discontent could continue to escalate, particularly among Obama's core supporters. Fewer than one-in-five Democrats favors augmenting that force.
In Iraq, a series of devastating bomb attacks punctured a period of relative calm. Iraqi officials who had optimistically removed blast walls guarding key government offices reluctantly replaced them, and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari admitted: "We have to face the truth. There has been an obvious deterioration in the security situation."
The president has to face more unpleasant truths at home. Despite his arduous attempts to sell his health-care plans, support is dropping there as well. For the first time, 50 percent disapprove of how he's handling the issue, up from a 29 percent negative rating in April.
That's one reason why Obama, when he returns to the capital, will be greeted by growing demands to scale back his ambitions and accept a more modest bill, focused on insurance reforms. Another reason is the federal deficit, which is strengthening critics who argue the country cannot afford the president's trillion-dollar price tag.
White House economists estimated the budget shortfall would hit $1.6 trillion this year, while the 10-year period from 2010 to 2019 would add another $9 trillion to the national debt. The Congressional Budget Office, in the understatement of the week, called these numbers "unsustainable." The CBO also predicted that unemployment would keep rising and top 10 percent, which means lower tax revenues and higher jobless payments.
The same day Obama received these gloomy projections, Attorney General Eric Holder announced an investigation into possible criminal conduct by intelligence officers who had interrogated terrorist suspects during the Bush administration. The president had warned repeatedly that such investigations could sidetrack his agenda and irritate his enemies. But Holder went ahead anyway.
And that's not all. The National Climactic Data Center reported that July was the hottest month for the world's oceans in almost 130 years of record keeping. That could mean smaller Arctic ice fields and larger tropical storms. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology warned that swine flu could infect half of the American population and cause 90,000 deaths. And the loss of Sen. Ted Kennedy deprives Obama of a mentor, a dealmaker and, for a few months at least, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
So enjoy your summer vacation, Mr. President. The fall won't be any fun.