The Etch a Sketch presidency

Some political observers have called Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom’s “Etch A Sketch” remark one of the worst gaffes in political history, because it reinforced conservatives’ worst suspicions about the GOP frontrunner’s malleability just as he was starting to build some momentum.

Fehrnstrom’s comments certainly won’t help his boss’ chances of winning over skeptical conservatives. But, whether or not Romney adopts such a strategy, the Etch A Sketch metaphor more aptly applies to Barack Obama’s presidency.

I don’t mean that Obama has no ideological core. His liberal roots run deep. What I mean is that on issue after issue, the president has painted rhetorical pictures of his policies that have inspired and attracted support even from many independent and conservative voters.

But time after time, Obama has quickly erased those pictures, abandoning promises and reversing policy positions, and cynically redrawn pictures that align with his ideological agenda.

Running for the presidency, Obama asked voters to ignore his liberal record and troubling associations and instead to focus solely on their own hopes and dreams. “I serve as a blank screen” Obama wrote in the prologue to The Audacity of Hope, “on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”

And project they did. Based on Obama’s promises, that “blank screen” was quickly filled with the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans—about a new era of post-partisanship, about racial reconciliation, about economic recovery and much more. Obama built up expectations of what he could achieve so much that disappointment and disillusionment were all but assured.   

Where Obama promised to bridge the partisan divide, we have gotten divisive rhetoric and little outreach to political opponents. Where he pledged ethics reform, we’ve seen a record number of executive orders and dubious recess appointments.

Where Obama promised to usher in a post-racial era, he has inserted himself into every racial controversy that has arisen – from the Henry Louis Gates arrest to the current uproar over the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Obama campaigned and started his term assuring religious organizations that their conscience rights would be detected. But what we’ve seen is an all-out assault on employers’ right to do business in accordance with their deeply held beliefs.

Obama has made economic fairness a major theme of his presidency, taking every opportunity to paint a portrait of an America where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone plays by the same rules.

But Obama has used his presidency to award his donors, friends and pet ideological causes. The administration issued waivers for Obamacare’s costly regulations mostly to labor-union groups and other entities with strong Democratic connections.

The vast majority of Obama’s loans to green energy firms were given to top donors, including a half-billion-dollar loan to the now defunct Solyndra.

Obama promised to make “transparency” a touchstone of his administration, drawing a picture for voters of the “most open and transparent” White House ever.

But a recent House Oversight and Government Reform Committee report found that the administration has not lived up to its promises.  A lawyer who had filed Freedom of Information Act cases over six administrations told Politico that Obama’s record is “the worst.”

“This administration is raising one barrier after another. … It’s gotten to the point where I’m stunned — I’m really stunned,” the lawyer told Politico.  A senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said that “despite the positive rhetoric that has come from the White House and the attorney general, that guidance has not been translated into real world results in actual cases. … Basically, the reviews are terrible.”

The reports documented numerous complaints, including an “unprecedented wave” of prosecution of whistleblowers and the administration’s aggressive attempts to deny FOIA requests at the agency level and in court “sometimes on Obama’s direct orders.”

Obama has also portrayed himself as being conflicted over same-sex marriage. He insists his view is “evolving.” Last week, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren called on Obama to finish evolving on the issue and finally endorse same-sex marriage.

Though he insists he does not yet support same-sex marriage, he has done everything in his authority, and then some, to advance gay nuptials. He has ordered his Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and given repeated vocal support to the California Supreme Court’s decision to impose same-sex marriage on California.

Last week Obama declared his opposition to a ballot initiative in North Carolina that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

All politicians talk to different audiences differently. And all winning candidates, once they’re in office, have a hard time fulfilling every promise and pledge they’ve made to every voter. But Obama seems to treat campaigning and governing as two distinct occupations that are totally unrelated to one another.

Obama has treated his presidency like an Etch A Sketch. But he won’t get to start over this election. He’ll have a hard time erasing the memory of four years of failure that he’s etched deep into the nation’s psyche.