Can't Touch Him

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Fineman

Obama's uncanny ability to shake off blame.

Let's try a political thought experiment. Imagine that a few months after a new president takes office, his administration approves an offshore oil well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico. It is to be run by BP, whose employees were very generous donors to the president's campaign. The oil company airily dismisses the possibility of a catastrophic leak that might destroy the coastline. Nearly a year later, the president--to the dismay of his environmentalist supporters--says he wants to greatly expand offshore drilling. Soon after that, the BP well explodes, and oil spews into the gulf. It's clear to everyone that the blowout is a major catastrophe, requiring a federal mobilization. But the president's initial response is to say, in effect: do not worry, BP will pay for the cleanup. Eleven days pass before he goes to survey the scene.

Of course, this is a sketch of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the president is Barack Obama. But here is the rest of the experiment. Imagine the reaction of Washington--the media, Congress, the "national conversation"--if the president wasn't Obama but George W. Bush. "We would be under siege," says Dan Bartlett, who was communications director in the Bush years. "There'd be calls for special prosecutors, investigations everywhere. The focus wouldn't be on what was happening out in the gulf--it would be on what happened in the West Wing."

Now, I hold no brief for George Bush, and I have no desire to launch a screed against the home-field advantage that Obama still gets in the non-Murdoch media. But I do marvel at how Obama has become the hallucinatory Escher drawing of our politics. It's hard to decide which way the stairs are built, whether they will lead to the roof or basement, and there is no flat middle floor to stand on. To those on the right, he's evil incarnate, but on the left, he still can do no wrong, or at least nothing so wrong that they are willing to take him on. That "blowout preventer" is still working.

The stark division in politics these days is mostly over how we see the president himself. At the recent Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans--a gathering of the conservative hard core--the ballroom was filled with a sense of apocalypse, fear, and even dread about Obama. …