Hey Pundits, Why The Long Face?

Americans are feeling more optimistic about the economy, according to a New York Times poll Tuesday that found President Obama's approval rating -- 66 percent -- at its highest ever.

But it raised a question: Are the leading opinion makers leading this wave of optimism or not? We looked at nine prominent writers -- three conservatives, three moderates, and three liberals -- and compared statements about Obama that they made between November and January with statements they've made in the last few weeks to determine whether they're feeling rosier about the administration's direction.

What emerges is a punditocracy that has soured toward Obama's policies as the public has lightened up on the economy. Across the spectrum, pundits are finding plenty to gripe about, with conservatives balking at Obama's alleged socialism, moderates wearying of his administration's unpredictable approach to the banking crisis, and even liberals wondering whether he is too cool for comfort.

Here's a brief rundown of each pundit's two month trajectory.

CONSERVATIVES

Bill Kristol: At first he thought Obama might usher in a conservatism-killing era. Now, he spies the glimmers of a con-comeback.

Charles Krauthammer: Where he once saw a political master, Krauthammer now blasts an "Obamaist Manifesto."

Recommended Reading

George Will: Never persuaded by the promise of national consensus, Will lambastes the administration's multi-facted, dithering approach to the crisis.


MODERATES

Andrew Sullivan: Once full of hope, he has recoiled at the budget. Cracks in Sullivan's Obamaphile armor are beginning to show.

David Brooks: Never persuaded by the president, but now he's had enough of the "über-partisan" spending plan. Brooks also epitomizes the popular moderate critique that Obama is trying to do too many peripheral things -- like health care reform -- while the bank crisis requires his utmost attention.

Peggy Noonan: Inauguration plaudits have given way to accusations of "unbearable lightness" on the economy. Noonan is tough to pin down on Obama, because it's clear throughout her writing that she respects his style but not necessarily his substance.


LIBERALS

EJ Dionne: Always a fan, Dionne defends Obama from the moderate critique that he's trying too much, because, hey, isn't government about doing things?

Maureen Dowd: Obama's caution -- long her concern -- has become passivity, and she fears he lacks the gumption to reel in congressional dithering.

Paul Krugman: From hope-doubter to budget-lover to bank plan-objector, Krugman's loyal opposition seeks revolutionary changes over what he considers Obama's incrementalism.

------------------
FOOTNOTES

Bill Kristol
January 25: "What we have so far, mainly, is an Inaugural Address, and it suggests that he may have learned more from Reagan than he has sometimes let on. Obama's speech was unabashedly pro-American and implicitly conservative."

March 16: " "Public distaste for both the Bush and Obama administrations' handling of the financial crisis seems to be crystallizing."

Charles Krauthammer
January 23: "He's Bill Clinton, master politician, but without the hunger. Clinton craves your adulation (the source of all his troubles). Obama will take it, but he can leave it, too. He is astonishingly self-contained. He gives what he must to advance his goals, his programs, his ambitions. But no more. He has no need to ... By connecting himself in this historic address to Washington rather than Lincoln the liberator, Obama was legitimizing the full sweep of American history without annotation or mental reservation. If we ever have a post-racial future, this moment will mark its beginning."

February 27: The "Obamaist Manifesto" claimed that "Obama has radically different ambitions...The spread between Europe and America in government-controlled GDP has already shrunk from 14 percent to 7 percent. Two terms of Obamaism and the difference will be zero."

George Will
January 21: "His presidency begins as an exercise in psychotherapy for a nation suffering a crisis of confidence. But neither the nation nor the government that accurately represents it is constructed for consensus. And he will be unable to fault his office for his frustrations because, more than any predecessor except the first, the 44th president enters office with the scope of its powers barely circumscribed by law, and even less by public opinion."

March 12: "The president's confidence in his capacities is undermining confidence in his judgment. His way of correcting what he called the Bush administration's "misplaced priorities" has been to have no priorities. Mature political leaders know that to govern is to choose -- to choose what to do and thereby to choose what cannot be done. The administration insists that it really does have a single priority: Everything depends on fixing the economy. But it also says that everything depends on everything"

Andrew Sullivan
November 3: "Obama, moreover, seems to bring out the best in people, and the calmest, and the sanest. He seems to me to have a blend of Midwestern good sense, an intuitive understanding of the developing world that is as much our future now as theirs', an analyst's mind and a poet's tongue."

March 2: "Does Obama's Budget Math Add Up? In a word: Nope."

David Brooks
January 21: "On Tuesday, President Obama was inaugurated and vowed a new era. On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee met and showed the old era was very much alive."

March 2: "But the Obama budget is more than just the sum of its parts. There is, entailed in it, a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs. There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor -- caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once."

Peggy Noonan
January 20: "He has the kind of self-confidence that will serve him well or undo him. He has to be careful about what he wants, because he's going to get it, at least at the beginning. He claimed a lot of moderate territory in his Inaugural Address (deepen and expand our alliances, put aside debates on size of government and aim for government that is competent and constructive), but no one is certain, still, what governing philosophy guides him. He would be most unwise to rouse the sleeping giant that is American conservatism."

March 19: "What strikes one is the weightlessness of the Obama administration, the jumping from issue to issue and venue to venue from day to day. Isaiah Berlin famously suggested a leader is a fox or a hedgehog. The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. In political leadership the hedgehog has certain significant advantages, focus and clarity of vision among them. Most presidents are one or the other. So far Mr. Obama seems neither."

EJ Dionne
January 22: "President Obama intends to use conservative values for progressive ends. He will cast extreme individualism as an infantile approach to politics that must be supplanted by a more adult sense of personal and collective responsibility. He will honor government's role in our democracy and not degrade it. He wants America to lead the world, but as much by example as by force. And in trying to do all these things, he will confuse a lot of people."

March 9: As for criticisms from the moderates, it's balderdash to call Obama's policies "radical." They seem radical only in comparison with the right-wing approach the government has pursued in recent years. Particularly on health care, it would be irresponsible for Obama not to press the reforms he promised in his campaign. And what could be more "moderate" than the open, pragmatic approach Obama took during his White House health-care summit last week? No, the president is not "overreaching."

Maureen Dowd
January 17: "Even Obama's caution -- a commodity notably absent from the White House for eight years -- fills people with optimism. It's a huge relief to be getting an inquisitive, complicated mind in the White House."

March 3: "In one of his disturbing spells of passivity, President Obama decided not to fight Congress and live up to his own no-earmark pledge from the campaign. He's been lecturing us on the need to prune away frills while the economy fizzles. He was slated to make a speech on "wasteful spending" on Wednesday.

Paul Krugman
January 22: "I ended Tuesday less confident about the direction of economic policy than I was in the morning ... Mr. Obama did what people in Washington do when they want to sound serious: he spoke, more or less in the abstract, of the need to make hard choices and stand up to special interests. That's not enough. In fact, it's not even right."

February 27: "These new priorities are laid out in a document whose clarity and plausibility seem almost incredible to those of us who grew accustomed to reading Bush-era budgets, which insulted our intelligence on every page. This is budgeting we can believe in."

March 26: "But it has become increasingly clear over the past few days that top officials in the Obama administration are still in the grip of the market mystique. They still believe in the magic of the financial marketplace and in the prowess of the wizards who perform that magic."