The checked-out president is beginning to make Democrats, both politicians and in the media, observably nervous and twitchy. Consider Frank Bruno at the New York Times:
Rationally or not, this is one of those rare moments when Americans who typically tune out so much of what leaders say are paying rapt attention, and Obama’s style of communication hasn’t risen fully to the occasion. Even as he canceled campaign appearances and created a position — Ebola czar — that we were previously told wasn’t necessary, he spoke with that odd dispassion of his, that maddening distance.
About the ban, he said, “I don’t have a philosophical objection necessarily.” About the czar, he said that it might be good to have a person “to make sure that we’re crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s going forward.” He’s talking theory and calligraphy while Americans are focused on blood, sweat and tears.
Ebola is his presidency in a petri dish. It’s an example already of his tendency to talk too loosely at the outset of things, so that his words come back to haunt him. There was the doctor you could keep under his health plan until, well, you couldn’t. There was the red line for Syria that he didn’t have to draw and later erased.
With Ebola, he said almost two weeks ago that “we’re doing everything that we can” with an “all-hands-on-deck approach.” But on Wednesday and Thursday he announced that there were additional hands to be put on deck and that we could and would do more. The shift fit his pattern: not getting worked up in the early stages, rallying in the later ones.
It’s more understandable in this case than in others, because when it comes to statements about public health, the line between adequately expressed concern and a license for hysteria is thin and not easily determined. Still, he has to make Americans feel that he understands their alarm, no matter how irrational he deems it, and that they’re being leveled with, not talked down to, not handled. And he has a ways to go.
“If you were his parent, you’d want to shake him,” said one Democratic strategist, who questioned where Obama’s passion was and whether, even this deep into his presidency, he appreciated one of the office’s most vital functions: deploying language, bearing, symbols and ceremony to endow Americans with confidence in who’s leading them and in how they’re being led.
Right now in this country there’s a crisis of confidence, and of competence, and that’s the fertile ground in which the Ebola terror flowers. That’s the backdrop for whatever steps Obama and Frieden take from here. With the right ones, they can go a long way toward calming people who are anxious not just about Ebola but about America. I don’t even want to think about the wrong ones.
That is not the writing of a happy rabbit. After all, it is pretty hard to argue for more government intervention as one watches an indifferent president lurch half-heartedly from one potential disaster into the next one.