Far from the Political Echo Chamber, Holiday Notes on a "Struggling Presidency"

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Perhaps it was the setting, a rather serene and playful backyard birthday party for a former federal prosecutor, but a Sunday barbecue across the street in my Chicago hood brought few hints of what the New York Times on Monday labeled Barack Obama's "struggling" presidency.

In fact, this distinctly non-focus group gathering lacked any mention of Obama, or the "public option" in health care, or the improbable, confusion-shrouded "Gang of Six" in the Senate. It was all the more notable since there was one U.S. Senate candidate (Democrat) and one congressional candidate (Republican) in the mix, enjoying the beer, sausages and our kids playing whiffle ball or cavorting on a small trampoline.

There was no mention of the Sunday talk shows, which featured administration aides talking health care and underscoring what would seem obvious to even a C-minus student in government; namely that there's a lot more to the legislation than pleasing Nancy Pelosi and others on the Democratic left.

But the mostly Washington-driven commentary has now fashioned what the Times, on the way to being our last great and ambitious daily amid a melancholy industry decline, tagged as "a narrative about a young and relatively inexperienced president who overinterpreted his mandate and overreached in his policies."

The origin and empirical truth of such a narrative is unclear and the evidence unconvincing as far as its being shared by great swaths of the electorate, even if one is obsessed by the whip-lash-inducing polling now generated by virtually every institution in the society except the Subway sandwich shop on the corner.  Yes, Obama's support is down from his inauguration.

But the decline is not even in the same universe as those of some past presidents, notably Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford, seven months into their presidencies, as the Times correctly notes, albeit long after the assertion of a "struggling presidency."

Indeed, the paper concedes, "his overall standing with the public is still healthy." It is. Check the figures and, by almost all key indices, his standing overall and with various groups is in sync with the support he received on Election Day last November.

Now, go and check any vaguely similar polling pertaining to a truly beleaguered political species: the nation's governors and mayors.

With Congress willing to write virtually any check, Obama need not really worry about layoffs, fixing potholes, canceling orders for new public buses or closing mental health centers. You haven't heard Obama announce furlough days at the Department of Education or the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Such announcements, and accountability, are the province of the mayors and governors; two-legged dartboards for all of us frustrated citizens.

They're on the front lines, as opposed to most legislators, even if those legislators are members of the Senate's exalted  "Gang of Six," apparent arbiters of our medical futures. Go check the polling on the elected officials in your political backyards forced to make people very angry these days amid a free fall in revenue.  Many would crave to have Ocala's modest polling erosion.

It explains why the one constant topic at the barbecue across the street was jobs.  It wasn't just the formal unemployment figures, but tales of friends and family forced to work part-time, or even some who've given up looking at the moment and thus don't show up, either, in the formal data. In a state like Illinois, that reality surely would jack up the real unemployment numbers into the mid-teens.

Does Obama have some reason to worry? Sure. But he seems a guy of good discipline, with some rather astute folks around him who know that the current downtick does not carry any inherent inevitability.  If the economy is still in the tank a year from now, yes, they've got real troubles and the near certainty of losing a bunch of chums in Congress.

But, for now, many Americans will check out a parade, grab a hot dog somewhere and prepare those backpacks for school Tuesday. Monday will bring work to the White House, with hands on deck to offer tactical and editing wisdom for his health care speech Wednesday. For the rest of us, far from the D.C. echo chamber, there's a final day of holiday rest before returning to our real collective narrative, a crappy economy.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of the Daily Beast/Newsweek and an MSNBC analyst. He's former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. More

James Warren is a former manager, editor and Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Tribune. An ink-stained wretch, he's labored at The Newark Star-Ledger, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Tribune in a variety of positions, including financial reporter, legal affairs reporter-columnist, labor writer, media writer-columnist and features editor. The Washingtonian once tagged him one of the town's 50 most influential journalists (he thinks he was 46, the number worn by Andy Pettitte, a pitcher for his beloved New York Yankees). He's a political analyst for MSNBC. He was recently publisher and president of the Chicago Reader, and is now policy columnist for Business Week and twice-a-week Chicago columnist for The New York Times (you can find his handiwork on the paper's website and on new Chicago pages produced for Friday's and Sunday's Midwest print editions by the nonprofit Chicago News Cooperative, which he held to start). A native New Yorker, he's a happy resident of the wonderful, if ethically challenged, City of Chicago, where he lives just north of decaying Wrigley Field with his Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, Cornelia, and their sons, Blair and Eliot. Blair's t-ball team is, yes, the Yankees.

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