"Muddling through" is not an inspiring strategy for any president. Barack Obama's administration is a muddle, as anyone can see, and everyone can see that he's through as a leader, just when a leader is needed to reassure a frightened nation.
Ineptitude and incompetence, with a new Cold War looming in Europe, a brutal version of Islam on the prowl in the Middle East and a deadly disease threatening to devour West Africa, casting a shadow across everywhere else, do not a pleasing prospect make.
Midterm congressional elections are nearly always a referendum on the president and his performance, but rarely have the midterms felt so much like a presidential election. To the chagrin, sorrow and terror of the Democrats on the ballot everywhere, Mr. Obama is the only issue on the ballot.
Everything he touches turns to dross, draining the confidence and sunny optimism that makes America go. A headline in The New York Times, the president's most faithful cheerleader, captures his dilemma: "Obama Could Replace Aides Bruised by a Cascade of Crises." But the bruises on the rear ends of his aides are nothing like the painful bruises on the rest of us. The accounting of what the president and these aides have inflicted will require more than "a dope story" about who stands where in a president's inner circle.
The Ebola shadow has fallen across every race — visible in every big city, small town, country crossroads and remote backwoods farm. Fear of a grim and barely curable disease saps the spirit even if it never touches the body. Everyone understands getting sick. It's not the most important issue, but it's the best understood, and a voter who has no interest in the arcane stuff that mesmerizes the political junkies inside the Beltway can see, and measure, the president's stubborn stumbling and bungling. The virus has put a face on what's wrong at the White House.
"Obama has been hit from so many angles, for so many mistakes that he's made," the plain-spoken real-estate tycoon Donald Trump says, "that he has become immune to 'hell to pay.'" But if Ebola fear descends into something worse than fear, "you're going to see a whole new kind of 'hell to pay.'"
The lazy media is at last noticing the incompetence and impotence. No one — well, almost no one — is any longer charmed by the smooth-talking butter-and-egg man from the South Side of Chicago. Editors and reporters are terrified of getting sick, just like everyone else. "The effort to fight Ebola needs a leader," observes the usually faithful New Yorker magazine, and the clear implication is that there isn't one. The president's Ebola czar, like everyone else, is running from the sound of the sneeze.
The "what was he thinking" moments accumulate. Why did the president, usually so scornful of nation-building, dispatch the Army to West Africa for bedpan duty, as important as bedpan duty may be? Why send soldiers 4,600 miles from home without a clear, and clearly understood, plan for getting them out and bringing them home? The president insists that there must be no quarantines for doctors and nurses returning from Ebola duty, but the Defense Department has ordered a 21-day quarantine for soldiers returning from such duty.
The commander in chief, departing Washington for campaign duty in Wisconsin, scoffed at the notion that there's a contradiction. "First of all," he said, "[the soldiers] are not treating patients. Second of all, they are not there voluntarily. It's part of their mission that's been assigned to them by their commanders and ultimately by me." Only this commander in chief would make such a cold remark, the implication being that his troops are fodder and "the health-care professionals" are not. Besides, the Pentagon tells CNN, it's not a quarantine, but only "controlled monitoring." The White House insists it isn't worried about a coherent strategy for getting the troops home. That's for somebody else to worry about some other time. "We're going to let science drive that process," the president's press secretary says.
The scientists driving "the process" continue to make convenient changes in the science. After weeks of reassuring everyone that casual contact cannot spread Ebola, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says the disease can be spread through "droplets," the stuff that floats in the air when an infected someone coughs or sneezes, and "enters the eyes, nose or mouth of another person."
A public aroused to anger often reaches for the nearest club to punish politicians who evade, lie, distort and dissemble in the face of crisis. Such a moment is coming up Tuesday.