A Warning About That Warning About Obama

Today’s Wall Street Journal features an op-ed from one Ted Van Dyk, who argues that Barack Obama has failed to live to up to the promise of his campaign, that his presidency is “stalling out,” and that he badly needs to hit “the reset button.”

Van Dyk is identified as a former Hubert Humphrey aide who’s been “active in national Democratic politics over 40 years.”

But be warned: He also has a history as an alarmist.

Here, for instance, is what Van Dyk told The New Yorker about Bill Clinton’s presidency in December 1994: “There is one operative question at the moment: Is there any Democratic senator or Democratic governor who wants to run with Bill Clinton at the top of the ticket in 1996? Not on your life. It's over. The president is done. He's finished. He's like that old Thurber cartoon where the guy has just had his head sliced off in a fencing match. He just hasn't noticed it yet.”

Whoops.

 Just 13 months later, of course, Clinton entered the 1996 Democratic primaries without opposition, and in November ’96, with every Democratic governor and senator eagerly running with him, routed Bob Dole with 379 electoral votes—the second-best showing for a Democrat since F.D.R.

Granted, when Van Dyk made his comment in ’94, Clinton was at the lowest point of his presidency. His party had just been crushed in the midterm elections and there was plenty of talk that he wouldn’t survive ’96.

But even in that atmosphere, Van Dyk’s forecast was notable for its absolutism. Not on your life. It’s over. The president’s done. He’s finished. No other reputable Democrat was willing to go nearly that far. His comment made national news, Republicans incorporated it into their talking points, and Van Dyk briefly found himself an in-demand pundit.

 To The New York Times, which interviewed him after the New Yorker story hit, Van Dyk stated: “I hope he decides to do the best thing for the party and decides not to seek a second term. I don't know a single Democrat in elected office who doesn't desperately want to see Clinton off the ticket.”

And he offered this to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “I think wisdom dictates that he withdraw early and spare the country and himself a lot of agony. A worst-case scenario is he hangs tough, we have anywhere from two to five challengers, and we spend the next two years destroying ourselves.”

You get the point. By the fall of ’96, when the only suspense was whether Clinton would break the 400-electoral-vote mark against Dole, Van Dyk switched from warning that the Democratic Party would be “destroyed” by Clinton to simply bashing him, writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he chastised Clinton for signing that year’s welfare reform bill and branded Dole the rightful heir to F.D.R. as the defender of “the little guy.” But this made little sense. Being upset with Clinton over welfare was one thing, but Dole not only supported the welfare bill Clinton signed, he had actually favored an even harsher version that was first rejected by Clinton.

To believe his latest op-ed, Van Dyk is (or at least was until recently) far more fond of Obama than he was of Clinton. So his flagellation isn’t rooted in the animosity that inspired his premature Clinton obituaries.

More likely, he’s simply overreacting, just as he did in ’94, after the Democrats suffered an awful midterm election. In the last few weeks, Obama’s poll numbers have declined some; his approval stands at 58 percent in the latest Gallup survey. In ’94, Van Dyk took the worst-possible interpretation of the midterms and ran with it; now he’s taking the worst-possible interpretation of Obama’s poll decline and doing the same: His presidency is off the rails and he needs to hit the reset button!

Or maybe Van Dyk just needs to take a chill pill.