There comes a moment in a failing presidency where the incumbent, through some single gesture, action, or statement, crosses a certain line from beyond which there is no return. Through his own will and behavior he so underlines his failings, so frames his negative image, that no further action can ever erase it. Fate, accident, and circumstance have nothing to do with it. It is the president himself who puts the period at the end of his own sentence.
Such moments are obvious in retrospect, though not always at the time. With Richard Nixon, it was the “eighteen-minute gap.” An oval office tape recording turned over to Judge John Sirica, who was overseeing the investigation of the Watergate incident, turned out to have a lengthy period of silence smack dab in the middle of a conversation between Nixon and chief of staff H.R. Haldeman. The White House claimed that Rose Mary Woods, the president’s secretary, had inadvertently hit the wrong button for those eighteen minutes. This might well have been true, but in light of Nixon’s long reputation as Tricky Dick, it sounded like the cock-and-bull story to end them all. Nixon had been holding his own in the Watergate battle up to that point. The voting public viewed the uproar with bemusement rather than indignation. But the tape gap finished him. In less than a year, he was forced into resignation.
For Jimmy Carter, it was the “malaise speech” of July 15, 1979, in which he attempted to shuffle the blame for his tepid performance as president from his own administration onto the shoulders of the American people. Carter claimed that a national “crisis of confidence” (he never actually used the word “malaise”) made it impossible for him to adequately grapple with the country’s problems. It was America’s fault, not Jimmy Carter’s. The public reaction was open disgust and the abject collapse of any support for the Carter presidency.
With Obama, we have an abundance of riches: the multiple vacations, the legal harassment of the state of Arizona on behalf of illegals, the clownish response to the Gulf oil blowout. But when historians come to select the moment when Obama went over the edge of the world, I think they’ll find the great Iftar mosque speech of August 13, 2010 hard to beat.
During a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan the president found it appropriate to come out in favor of religious freedom. Not in support of Christians being attacked by janjaweed gunmen, or Bahais tormented by Iranian mullahs, or Jews being stalked by assassins, or even American citizens being told that they cannot pray in public, but in favor of a shadowy foreign foundation with suspicious financing and disturbing Jihadi connections that wishes to build some kind of victory monument congruent to the site of the 9/11 massacre.
These doomsday statements work by putting previous suspicions and surmises about the president — always negative — into sharp relief, acting as verification and confirmation. Nixon had suffered a reputation as a conniver since his knock-down, drag-out 1950 battle against Helen Gahagan Douglas (it was Douglas who coined the “Tricky Dick” nickname). The tape gap fit so perfectly into that narrative as to crowd out everything else. Carter’s inept performance as president was rendered even harder to bear by his continual sanctimony and moral preening. The malaise speech merely added the patina of a whiner.
With Obama, suspicions have involved his status as an American. The foreign parentage, the registration in an Indonesian school noting him as a Muslim, the uproar over the birth certificate, aroused misgivings that, despite media scorn heaped upon those noting them, he has never quite been able to put to rest. As of last weekend, his opportunities to do so are ended. Impressions trump arguments, and for most of the country, Obama will, from here on in, be a strange and untrustworthy figure — a man who does not understand what Ground Zero means to America, who utilizes American law and custom to support foreign interests, who speaks to strangers more clearly than to his own.
Nothing either Nixon or Carter did enabled them to recover from their faux pas. Even as the tape gap story broke, Nixon was supervising a massive airlift of supplies and ammunition to Israel, which was involved in life-or-death struggle against massive Arab attack in the Yom Kippur War. It gained him nothing, scarcely earning a mention amid all the public speculation about Watergate. Less than three months after the Carter speech, Iranian “students” (actually professional revolutionaries under the control of the Ayatollah Khomeini) sacked the American embassy in Tehran, taking nearly a hundred American hostages. I can attest that I was not alone in thinking, “Great — and we’ve got Mr. Malaise is charge.” The year-and a-half-long hostage crisis, climaxed by the disastrous Eagle Claw rescue mission, hastened the collapse of the worst presidency of the later 20th century.
The past two years are the best Obama will ever see. The real crises of his presidency are still to come, and are easily visible as they move toward us — Iran, terrorism, the economy, the collapse of the national health care system hastened by his own policies. He will meet them under a cloud of his own making, attempting to overcome them as a president who takes endless vacations, who will not defend his country’s borders, who sat out the Gulf oil crisis, who overlooks the sacrifices of his own countrymen in favor of dubious foreign figures.
The tide has gone out for Barack Obama. It is all epilogue from here on in.