Scandal Turns Tide on Obama’s Age of Innocence

WASHINGTON ~ In the wake of the first major scandal of his term, US President Barack Obama remains as popular as ever but his aura of directness and candor is beginning to fade as he confronts enormous challenges.

Two months after his inauguration, outrage over bonus payments has forced Obama to stop blaming his predecessor George W. Bush for the huge problems he inherited and vow instead to be held accountable for the actions of his own administration.

He denied that any members of his team were involved in the massive bonuses disbursed to employees by beleaguered insurance giant American International Group (AIG), which has received over US$170 million in taxpayer-funded bailout money amid the worst recession in decades.

But he pledged: “Listen, I’ll take responsibility; I’m the president.”

“So for everybody in Washington who’s busy scrambling, trying to figure out how to blame somebody else, just go ahead and talk to me, because it’s my job to make sure that we fix these messes, even if I don’t make them.”

“It’s the beginning of the end of the age of innocence. This is a process in a new presidency that takes many months before they are held accountable for everything that happens on their watch,” said University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato.

“You can only use that excuse for so long … It’s remarkable how quickly former presidents fade in the public memory,” he added.

Obama still enjoys high job approval ratings at an average 61 percent in a mid-March Gallup poll, slightly above both Bush and Bill Clinton at the same point in their presidencies.

But Sabato warned: “The AIG scandal has been on President Obama’s watch, and clearly, his Treasury secretary is involved. There is no way to blame that on the Bush administration.”

Even before the scandal broke out, experts like op-ed writer David Broder were saying “it is not too soon to say that the Obama honeymoon is over.”

Obama, the man, was more popular than his policies, Broder noted.

“His critics in Washington and around the world have found their voices, and they are subjecting his administration to the kind of skeptical questioning that is normal for chief executives once they settle into their jobs,” he said.

Criticism no longer just comes from ultra-conservative talkshow hosts like Rush Limbaugh, but also from “politicians and journalists measuring him with the same skeptical eye they apply to everyone else,” Broder added in a Washington Post column on March 15, when the AIG scandal began to fester.

Obama has given fodder to skeptics turning to his Republican adversaries, who despite suffering heavy defeats at the polls, have been boosted by the record deficit included in Obama’s budget plan and a tax hike on wealthy Americans.

Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan sees Obama making the same mistake as Lyndon Johnson, a Democratic president who served in office between 1963 and 1969.

“Why did LBJ fail? He overloaded the circuits. He tried to do it all. He misread a national desire for continuity after Kennedy’s death as a mandate for a lunge to the left and a great leap forward with the largest expansion of government since the New Deal,” Buchanan said on the MSNBC website on March 10.

Obama has “read a repudiation of George Bush as a mandate for a government seizure of wealth and power,” he added.

But Sabato and Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, said only Republican voters see Obama’s decline, and the president was just where he should be at this point in his presidency.

Nonetheless, AIG “hurts his political capital, it’s a negative for the administration, it makes people less trusting, credibility is lessened, so it makes his job harder,” said Greene.

The scandal is “going to cause enormous problems,” Sabato agreed.

“I can’t imagine Congress passing another bailout. That’s dead on arrival.”

Obama however has expressed confidence the American public would give his administration the time to shore up the battered economy.

“I do think, though, that the American people are all in a place where they understand it took us a while to get into this mess; it’s going to take a while for us to get out of it,” he said.

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