Some of Barack Obama's friends are speculating that the honeymoon is over. We've
reached that exquisite point in the marriage when the party of the first part and
the party of the second part agree that the evening's honeymoon entertainment will
be a movie on DVD and that anything spicy must come from room service.
This is only natural. Only FDR succeeded in getting elected president-for-life, and we put a guarantee in the Constitution that we won't be tempted to allow that again. President Obama's poll numbers, though important now only inside the Beltway, are beginning to subside, down 10 points from Inauguration Day. The future, as Yogi Berra might say, is where lots of things haven't happened yet.
But Barack Obama was sold as the supernatural president, probably not born of a virgin but he kept fit by occasionally walking from Honolulu to the mainland. The usual restraints on human presidents would not apply to him, as anyone in the cult was only too eager to tell us as the lazy days of summer yielded to bright blue October and finally to the ascension on Nov. 5. You still have to be careful how you phrase criticism of the president lest you be accused of racism and lesser crimes and misdemeanors, but even some of the sycophants are beginning to find their voices, like puppies fascinated by the sound of their first tentative woofs, playful growls and baby barks. Skepticism is tolerated, if you keep it nice. Sic itur ad astra. It's written in the stars.
"Obama still enjoys broad public support," writes David Broder, the oracle to the Democratic wonkery, in The Washington Post, "but it is stronger for him personally than for his policies. Some of those policies are bafflingly complex, and all of them are untested. Among those who follow government closely, there is an unmistakable change in tone [over] the past weeks ... politicians and journalists [are] measuring him with the same skeptical eye they apply to everyone else."
Well, not quite. Democratic politicians and mainstream journalists still jealously protect their investment in the great One, wedded as they are to the idea of Barack Obama no matter who the actual Barack Obama is turning out to be. (Republican politicians are still trying to recover from November, like an addled goose hit on the head with a long-handled wooden spoon.) But the point is right on.
The president is learning with the rest of us that the damage his early panic did to feed the Wall Street selling frenzy won't be corrected by warm and fuzzy optimism. His "State of the Union" speech to Congress and the bad news in his budget message revealed the breadth and scope of how he intends to expand the government in a way that it can never be cut down to size, no matter how sane and sensible a successor might be. Like all presidents, he talked a very different talk when he was campaigning. But he was unique. Sensible people actually believed the magic tricks. Rabbits actually did live in his hat. He actually could saw the girl in half and paste her back together again.
He would never countenance earmarks; his budget includes 9,000 of them. He scoffed at John McCain's idea of taxing health care benefits to pay for health care for the poor; now he thinks that might not be a bad idea. He never expected anyone to notice the difference.
Barack Obama is the product of what the political philosopher Shelby Steele calls "redemptive liberalism," the notion that redeeming America of its sins is too important, too urgent, to leave to the working of individual freedom. Nothing short of government social engineering can do it. The only way to redeem the public schools from the sin of segregation was to destroy them through draconian busing, diversity by bureaucratic formula and discarding standards of actual learning. This, argues Mr. Steele, gives liberals the right to say of the ruin and wreckage, "at least we did something." Measure the activism, not the results. It's the thought that counts. (The failure of redemptive liberalism is why liberals, having stunk up the word "liberal," now insist on calling themselves "progressives.")
President Obama and his allies know that reality will soon overtake their fantasy of transforming America into a little Europe. He's aware that Americans don't want to be like Europe. That's why we're here instead of there. So he has to hurry. A little stubble on the morning after has destroyed illusions on many a honeymoon.