Obama showing signs of mediocrity

Every new president gets a “honeymoon” period when most Americans, even those who didn’t support him, wish him well and hope for the best, almost always followed by a certain disillusionment as it becomes apparent the problems facing the government — usually created by previous government actions — are beyond the capacity of one person to solve.

The process has been especially dramatic for Barack Obama, in whom so many had invested so much hope that he would be dramatically different.

Now, just more than six months into his presidency, with Congress heading home (or on junkets) for a month, political reality has hit home.

There were signs of trouble early on, with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and “health czar”-designate Tom Daschle having tax problems and the administration showing inconsistent attitudes toward them. All of a sudden the process of selecting cabinet members and top aides didn’t look as seamlessly intelligent and methodical as it had.

Even so, the administration looked like a juggernaut getting a $787 billion “stimulus” spending bill through Congress rather quickly. President Obama moved with dispatch to announce an end to torture (or “enhanced interrogation”) and his intention to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Trips abroad were generally successful, with people overseas, if anything, even more eager than most Americans to think well of the new president.

Gradually, however, complications mounted. Closing Guantanamo is turning out to be far from easy and reports on implementation have been delayed. As the U.S. prepares to leave Iraq, tensions there are simmering barely below the surface. And many Americans are having second thoughts about whether redoubling a commitment to transform Afghanistan into a modern Western-style democracy though military action was such a good idea.

On the domestic front House leaders ramrodded an ambitious and potentially expensive carbon cap-and-trade bill through, but blowback from constituents has been such that there are serious questions as to whether the Senate will even take it up.

The Obama administration learned from the failure of Hillarycare not to have reputed outside experts put together a complex health-care bill in secret, but then left the job to a fractious Congress. The result has been disjointed discussion, complicated by the fact that the Congressional Budget Office has issued report after report showing that expanding coverage and deepening government involvement while reducing costs and not adding to the deficit is – surprise, surprise! — a pipedream.

The upshot is opinion polls show that while President Obama’s personal popularity is about where President Clinton’s and President Bush’s were at similar stages, approval ratings for key issues like handling the deficit, the economy and health care are significantly lower, in some instances dipping into the negative range.

He’s likeable but he’s human and he’s having trouble dealing with an overgrown and sclerotic government and political system.

The upside is the emerging impression that President Obama is not all-powerful and omnicompetent is in some ways a validation of our constitutional system, which was purposely designed to make it difficult to make major changes without having a strong consensus from the people and from the three branches of government that ostensibly serve them. Learning that the president is an imperfect human being like the rest of us will probably be good for the country.