How Obama Lost His Mojo

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.  One pen-and-phone executive action driving the stubborn VA scandal out of the limelight, welcoming home an American held captive by our enemies. The vanquisher of Osama bin Laden now bringing home the last prisoner of war. The optics would be great: sharing the Rose Garden spotlight with grateful parents, and a hero’s welcome from small town, USA in rustic Idaho.  And as a bonus, Gitmo would get 5 very troublesome inmates closer to empty. He would cap the week in which he announced the pullout from Afghanistan with a triumphal return.

But the exchange of Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban kingpins hasn’t worked out as planned. A firestorm of criticism has erupted, with Bergdahl’s former comrades in arms proclaiming him a deserter, Congress upset that it was not informed of the transfer of Gitmo prisoners as required by a law Obama himself signed, and Susan Rice once again playing the role of Sunday show stand up gal, maintaining Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction,” only to have a court martial for desertion come into discussion at the highest level of the military.

How could the president, proclaimed by presidential historian Michael Beschloss the smartest man with the highest IQ ever elected to the presidency, misread the situation so badly? Several reasons suggest themselves.

Media ennui

Following the Friday announcement of the return of Sgt. Bergdahl, the dominant narrative in the media was one of joy, in keeping with hopes of the president. But in the face of objections from military figures, in particular social media posts from those personally familiar with the circumstances of his departure from his duty post, media allies could not maintain their customary cofferdam around information damaging to the president’s narrative.

It would be understandable if President Obama assumed that he could tough out any criticism on Bergdahl’s record. After all, his narrative of Benghazi as a spontaneous riot protesting an obscure video got him through re-election and beyond. But now that he will never face voters again, his friends in the media are less motivated to fight on his behalf. They are already weary over the VA scandal, seeing efforts to defend him hitting a law of diminishing returns.

VA scandal damage

The VA scandal outraged both sides of the aisle.  Veterans and active duty troops are a sacred cause to the vast majority of Americans. The fact those who sacrificed so much are now suffering and dying thanks to administrative inaction (at best) or incompetence and indifference (less charitably), has established the notion that the Obama administration may not be on the side of the soldiers as a dark suspicion in many minds. The military enjoys far more respect from the public than either politicians or the media. Obama has slashed military spending, and has referred to corpsmen as “corpsemen,” demonstrating a lack of familiarity, indeed a remoteness from military life. When he gave a commencement speech at West Point last week, it was apparent the feeling was mutual.  The reception he received was “icy” according to CNN.

The pants on fire problem

The great lies of Obamacare -- “If you like your insurance, you can keep it. If you like your insurance, you can keep it. Period.” -- have seriously and permanently damaged not just President Obama’s credibility, but the bond of trust between an American president and his citizenry. It is now perfectly respectable to be somewhat distrustful of the president, and suspicious of his motives. This seriously aggravates the media ennui mentioned above. Even the truest of true believers must wonder if they are gaining traction.

Executive isolation

The president apparently bypassed not just Congress but also the intelligence agency vetting process that could have warned him of the risks he faced by returning the Taliban war criminals, and the significant liabilities Sgt. Bergdahl’s departure from his duty post and the subsequent deaths of those sent to bring him back created for the heroic and triumphant narrative Obama sought.

We know very little about the actual decision-making process used in formulating this trade. But we do know that the president likes and trusts a small circle of people, including his aide Valerie Jarrett, who wields enormous influence, and who told Obama biographer David Remnick:

“I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. . . . He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. . . . So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. . . . He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”

Advisers with such elevated opinions of the president are unlikely to offer hard counsel, and more likely to reinforce his own instincts. As Obama once admitted, “I actually believe my own bullshit.”


It may be intangible, but momentum is a very real factor in politics, as in sports. Second terms are notoriously difficult for presidents, but President Obama may be having the hardest time since Nixon (and we know how that ended).  For a variety of reasons, including a media which, if no longer enthusiastic, is not hostile the way Nixon’s media were, and his status as a historic first, President Obama is unlikely to face Nixon’s fate.

But so far, the incumbent President of the United States has not demonstrated a great capacity to learn from his mistakes. If the November elections show fellow Democrats that he has become a liability to their own political futures, his current difficulties may look like the good old days.

Note: reference to a West Point cadet failing to salute has been deleted. I was mistaken, fooled by an optical illusion.

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