The Right Opinion

The President's Island Retreat

By Peggy Noonan · Aug. 20, 2011

Is his visit to Martha’s Vineyard a sign that he’s giving up?

The phrase of the day is “new lows.” It blares from every screen. The number of Americans satisfied with the ways things are going hits new lows – 11%. President Obama’s popularity: new lows. The Dow Jones Industrial Average this year: new lows. Maybe it will enter ordinary language. “Charlie, it’s been ages. How are you, how’s Betty?” “I’m experiencing some volatility, but she’s inching toward new lows.”

The market is dispirited. I’m wondering if the president is, too, and if that won’t carry implications for the 2012 race. You can imagine him having lunch with political advisers, hearing some unwanted advice – “Don’t go to Martha’s Vineyard!” – putting his napkin by his plate, pushing back from the table, rising, and saying in a clipped, well-modulated voice: “I’m tired. I’m going. If they want this job so much let them have it.”

How could he not be depressed? He has made big mistakes since the beginning of his presidency and has been pounded since the beginning of his presidency. He’s got to be full of doubts at this point about what to do. His baseline political assumptions have proved incorrect, his calculations have turned out to be erroneous, his big decisions have turned to dust. He thought they’d love him for health care, that it was a down payment on greatness. But the left sees it as a sellout, the center as a vaguely threatening mess, the right as a rallying cry. He thought the stimulus would turn the economy around. It didn’t. He thought there would be a natural bounce-back a year ago, with “Recovery Summer.” There wasn’t. He thought a toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball struggle over the debt ceiling would enhance his reputation. The public would see through to the dark heart of Republican hackery and come to recognize the higher wisdom of his approach. That didn’t happen either.

Nothing worked! And nothing’s going to work. He’s the smartest guy in the room, but he’s got the reverse Midas touch. Everything he touches turns to – well, unsatisfying outcomes.

The president shows all the signs of becoming a man who, around the time he unveils his new jobs proposal in September, is going to start musing in interviews about whether anyone can be a successful president now, what with the complexity of the problems and the forces immediately arrayed, in a politically polarized age, against any specific action. That was probably his inner rationale for not coming up with a specific debt-ceiling plan: Why give the inevitable forces a target? But his refusal to produce a plan became itself the target. Reverse Midas.

Under these circumstances he could not possibly be enjoying his job. On the stump this week in the Midwest, he should have been on fire with the joy of combat, he should have had them whooping and hollering with fresh material and funny lines. But even at his feistiest, he was wilted. Distracted. Sometimes he seems to be observing himself and his interactions as opposed to being himself and having interactions. His audiences wanted to show support, it was clear, that’s why they came. But there was something tentative in their response, as if they wanted to come through for the applause line but couldn’t figure out exactly where the applause line was. The president was dropping his g’s, always a terrible sign, a kind of bowing that assumes he speaks from a great height. He also started saying “folks” again. That too is a tell. It’s the word politicians who think they’re better and brighter than normal people use when they’re trying to make normal people think they’re normal.

Now he goes on vacation. Every president deserves a vacation, to the extent presidents can really have vacations, and that extent is limited. If a vacation is defined as something carefree and removed, then presidents never get vacations. There are always briefings, calls, the decisions on how to respond to a crisis or event. It’s hard to begrudge any president his attempts at escape. But political foes do.

Mr. Obama’s like to show him playing golf. The Democrats did the same to Eisenhower. Nixon was knocked for going so often to San Clemente, Reagan and George W. Bush to their ranches.

Mr. Obama shouldn’t be faulted for wanting to rest, relax and spend whole days with his family. But the timing of this vacation is incongruent, and so is the location.

On the timing, there’s an air of economic crisis hanging over everything, a sense that other shoes may drop. Actually it’s a sense of something impending, with unemployment high, Europe broke and the Mideast reaching full boil. A politician who wanted to impart a sense of leadership in crisis, who passionately wanted to keep the presidency, and who was prudently anxious about his prospects, just might let such a moment change his plans.

As for the location, the president loves Martha’s Vineyard, and there’s a lot to love – beautiful beaches, hills, biking. But it’s a little island whose summertime population is dominated by those who, due to their affluence, are essentially detached from everyday life in America. It’s a playground of the liberal rich: hedge-fund maestros, network producers, Wall Street heavyweights, left-leaning activists. It’s the kind of place that reverberates in the national imagination – that tags you as elitist no matter how many g’s you drop.

Both parties have to deal with certain tropes, symbols and clichés. If you’re a conservative president, you probably shouldn’t spend your vacation at a house on the edge of an exclusive golf club that’s had a history of problems admitting blacks, Jews, and the self-made sons of Dad’s old half-Irish, half-Puerto Rican cook. If you’re a liberal president, you probably shouldn’t be on vacation at a place known for snooty liberal insularity.

Mr. Obama’s media specialists probably told him what Bill Clinton’s mavens told him: If you’re going to the Vineyard, you have to go to some real American place first, like the Rockies. Which Mr. Clinton did. Going to the Vineyard didn’t harm him. But Mr. Clinton had prosperity, and Americans will forgive a lot from a guy who does nothing to stop prosperity, or actually may help it along.

Mr. Obama doesn’t have that advantage. It seems important to him to be true to himself – not to be the kind of person who’d poll-test a vacation. Or maybe he thinks that no matter what he does, it won’t work, so what the heck. But his decision to go now, and there, seems either ham-handed or vaguely defiant.

In early 2010 this space made much of the president’s pre-State of the Union interview with Diane Sawyer, in which she pressed the president about his political predicaments. He said: “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” I thought at the time: He means it, he can accept being a one-termer.

Maybe he’s feeling it now more than ever.

Maybe it means not much will change in terms of his leadership between now and the election.

Maybe he’ll be as wilted next year as he was this week.

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36 Comments

mumsie said:

I think that the reactions that you describe would be correct for a rational person. Obama, unfortunately, is a liberal. As such, the failure of ALL his policies is only that he hasn't explained them properly. The American people are too stupid to understand the good things that he's doing. And he's tried every way he knows to explain to these dumb people how much better off they are now than when Bush was president. What more can he do?A far as his vacation, isn't he Emperor of the World? He wants his vacation, and that's where the best people go. The people be damned.

Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 11:05 AM

Kevin from Arkansas in USA said:

He's still got his "Peace Prize" he can hug each night as he gazes in to the mirror repeating: "Mirror, mirror on the wall ......"

Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 11:15 AM

Jamie said:

The conservative's dream of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if I keep saying the president has been a total failure, it will be true. Please. "Mr Obama doesn't have the advantage"? Really? Did you watch the GOP straw poll debate? The only thing the media has been successful at doing is making the public doubt......of all things.....a vacation, simply because a President's vacation isn't usually news. This is a bad time to take a vacation? Again, REALLY?? Has there been a good time since the last year of the Bush administration?? While the WSJ has improved greatly over the last few years, it's nonsense like this that makes me reflect on Tucker Carlson's praise of the NYTimes at the CPAC convention in 2009. If you have conservative views, that's fine, but present them in an intelligent way. Is this not something we can expect of our journalists?

Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 11:21 AM

Phocus said:

You can imagine him having lunch with political advisers, hearing some unwanted advice -- "Don't go to Martha's Vineyard!" -- putting his napkin by his plate, pushing back from the table, rising, and saying in a clipped, well-modulated voice: "I've got a meeting with George."

Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 11:56 AM

Jeremy said:

"He has made big mistakes since the beginning of his presidency and has been pounded since the beginning of his presidency."This has to be one of the dorkiest lines ever written. I fail to see how any rational person could say that Obama has been "pounded since the beginning of his presidency." The mainstream press utterly adored the man and fawned over him like no other politician, ever. He was given a free pass to change the world, without any critical analysis. For example, it was clear from the beginning of Obama's reign of error that Europe was a failing continent, yet none in the media (outside of, perhaps, Fox News and the right-wing blogosphere) ever questioned his headlong dash towards European style social democracy. Now that we're broke and it's clear that Obama's plans have all failed, the left is turning on him. This is nothing more than denial, that is, the left can deny that there is anything wrong with their message, and instead blame the messenger. Pathetic, if you ask me.Anyways, I see no reason to feel sorry for Obama. There seems to be a lot of this sort of misplaced sympathy about on the right at the moment. As Krauthammer and others have pointed out, Obama never hesitates to impugn the motives of his critics. And just wait until he gets into full campaign mode---it's going to get really ugly out there...

Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 1:11 PM

Anton D Rehling in Olympia, WA said:

Electing Obama for president is like loaning your really nice expensive car to an acquaintance and then discovering after they total your car that he had zero experience driving, his license was a fake, he was driving under the influence and now your insurance won’t cover the loss. Obama is driving our country under the influence of a progressive liberal pie in the sky fantasy land organizer metality. He is a total fake as far as his economic intelligence and pedigree are concerned. Why do you think he hides his school transcripts?He reminds me of dumb and dumber, Jimmy Carter, dumb and Barack Husain Obama, dumber.

Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 4:11 PM

Wilson Hewlett said:

This writer writes like a woman.And she gives Obama way too much credit for being rational and having America's best interests at heart. This guy is a radical who, like his wife, parents, and grandparents (communists) hates this country and wants to see it "get its comeuppance." He's doing a good job of taking it down, enjoying himself in the process with vacation after vacation.If Americans don't come to their senses and act, this once-great country is toast.

Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 4:21 PM

Mr.Bones. said:

Bravo Mr.Hewlett! You stole my thunder. This poser is doing exactly what he has always wanted to do.Destroy this country as quickly as he can.He ignores congress!He ignores our constitution! obama is amerikas answer to mr.k.b.g. himself.vladimir putin.Of course if you point these things out.Your a racist! Well so be it.What i haven't quite figured out! What kind of racist am i. Am i a racist that dislikes his "black half" Or am i a racist that dislikes his"white half"It does make it all rather confusing.Or maybe i dislike him dislike him because he's A Liar A Phony and A Cheat! And a Chicago Punk! And those are some of his more redeeming qualities......Semper Paratus

Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 2:13 PM

Greg Welch said:

Ditto Mr. Bones and Mr. Hewlett. Ditto to talkshow Rush Limbaugh. " I hope he fails comment at the beginning of his Presidency. " Talk about seeing the future, and they all called Rush aevery name in the book. Well, how does this keep all my transcripts, SATS, LSATS,writings, "no writings as Pres. of the Harvard Law Review," strange?, no known school mates to come out and say that they knew him on several campuses. no classmates to be appointed to his cabinet . Manchurian perhaps????????? And now the fawning leftie,leaning, press is slowly realizing and maybe turning n the reality lamp. Please, give me a break.

Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 5:52 PM

GSJW said:

Gee Peggy, why the sudden change in viewing the Exhausted Rooster? He has been doing this same act since his community organizor days. Vote present 132-143 times in the Illinois Senate. that was a clue that Obama was a LEAD FROM BEHIND empty suit, Chauncey Gardner character, with no character or spine to begin with.Who is left in all his cabinet appointments????????That might tell us something negative also. It probably isn't loyalty though.

Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 5:59 PM

Vicki G in California said:

Obama's "been pounded since the beginning of his presidency." ??? Peggy, by whom? The Tea Party? They're mincemeat compared to the liberal media, which has done anything but "pound" Obama."He's the smartest guy in the room." ??? Peggy, if he's so smart, why is his ideology still trumping everything from the lessons of history to what's best for the country to common sense?This is a man who is in over his head with apparently no one who has ever told him the honest truth in his entire life.

Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 8:58 PM

Mr.Bones. said:

Correct-a-mundo!Miss.Vicki.Mz.Noonan it appears,has been breathing to much of the rarefied air our elites breath.Me thinks she needs to get out in to fly over country a little more often.Maybe her perception of our dear-leader might change.And she'd see him for the low life scoundrel he actually is.Some of our citizens have said.These terrible things were never said about president bush when he screwed up and made mistakes.Actually they were!Everyday.By The Fake Media.Over an Over an Over! Whether it was true our not[mz.plame] comes to mind,as one of the many lies in the n.y.times about the bush addministration.The Big Difference! mr. obama isn't making mistakes.He's doing exactly what he wants to do.As far as he's concerned.He'll Change America! Into amerika? Whether "we the people" approve of the change or not.That's how pharaohs and dictators operate.In case you haven't yet realized.That's what "we the people"elected in November of 2008!Semper Paratus.

Monday, August 22, 2011 at 10:09 AM

Howard Reed said:

Hello America,Even Bama's stringpullers have to be frustrated beyond the pale. When you elect a greenhorn based on the unpopularity of his predecessor you get an inexperienced socialist that likes to party and go on vacations at taxpayer expense. It is not as if the warning signs were not constantly put in front of the electorates face . . . no, they wanted a counter to George W. Bush and boy did we ever get one. GW is still smiling as he occasionally says . . . "Miss me yet." I think everyone knows the answer to that. A year after Bama continually blamed GW for the countries mess is when the rose colored glasses began to come off his average supporters eyes to see the alien monster we allowed to ravage us.The Turban Torpedo

Monday, August 22, 2011 at 6:16 PM

Common Man said:

Ditto to Mr. Bones and Mr. Hewlett! Mr. Obama is too busy high fiving his cronies to worry about what us commoners think. I am sure that whoever he really works for is giving him a very high rating. The trick to destroy any country is to attack its morals, destroy the family unit, make as many people as possible dependent upon the government, and create as many crises as possible, allowing the government to take drastic action. Soon we will see them demand that we turn over our IRA's and 401-k's to the government to keep them "safe".Remember, Hitler used created crises to "temporarily" take complete control of Germany to be able to act quickly.

Monday, August 22, 2011 at 8:22 PM

LC JB said:

Yes indeed, Ms. Noonan you've spent entirely too much time inside the beltway with the other elites that are a clear and present danger to the conservative movement. The idea that you should write to evoke sympathy in your reader to 'feel sorry' for this radical poser is beyond belief. I say the man has earned every single one of those grey hairs and the growing hatred of him by his own party. Boo-Hoo am I to feel sorry that the Empoorer (sp correct) can't enjoy his vacation? Please, maybe I could feel a bit sorry for him, if I could only have ANY vacation at all. Peggy we out here in flyover country are suffering at the hand of this alleged man. This wasn't the bumbling of the incompetent fool he is, but a considered effort through the malignant prism of Alinsky to bring the progressive movement into a permanent ascendancy. How dare you ask an American to feel sorry for this swine of a human being.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 12:39 AM