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If the President’s Not Yet a Lame Duck, why Are All the President’s Pals Ducking?


Here’s the surest sign you’re a boss on the way out – your closest friends stop sucking up. It’s way too early for President Obama to have such concerns, or so you would think. But you have to wonder, given all his most loyal backers’ not so loyal, or supportive, comments. Take Vice President Joe Biden. Unlike his boss’s measured response to ISIS, Biden wasted little time telling a Portsmouth, New Hampshire crowd he had a slightly different view of the terror group that has now beheaded two American journalists. “As a nation, we’re united,” Biden said. “And when people harm Americans, we don’t retreat, we don’t forget. We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know, we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice.” And as if to emphasize the point, Biden chose to remind this first-in-the-nation primary state audience that ISIS will pay, “because hell is where they will reside.” Biden’s comments come little more than a month after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ridiculed the president’s foreign policy approach to Syria, telling an interviewer, “Great nations need organizing principles (and) ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” There’s also been a remarkable change in the mainstream media’s approach to the president’s handling of ISIS, with the usually supportive New York Daily News this week practically screaming in a front-page headline, “Do You Have a Strategy Now, Mr. President?” and a Washington Post Op-Ed bemoaning the president’s “Un-nerving Happy Talk.” And all of this coming in a heated mid-term election year that has featured vulnerable Democrats not only distancing themselves from the president, but asking that he avoid coming anywhere near their states when they campaign. They’ve challenged his health-care law, his immigration policy, even his stewardship of an otherwise supposedly improving economy. That’s what happens when your poll numbers are down – even your buddies feel free to let her rip. But what’s unusual in the president’s case is that he seems to be turning into a lame duck with still more than two years to go as president. Things change, and the president’s fortunes could change as well – as Rudy Giuliani could tell you, even in the last few months of your term – but this whole political separation of anxiety is taking on a whole new meaning and morphing into a whole new, albeit delicate "dissing" drama. I’ve seen this happen to embattled chief executives, usually the ones patiently waiting out the end of their presumed appointed run. Then you get the feeling that run might be ending sooner than thought, when their support starts evaporating faster than expected. Or worse, the company bosses still in the thick of battle, getting heaved to the side because something changes and the magic is gone.

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Such is politics, office or otherwise, but is this about more than politics? Could it just be the nature of all business? Fortunes change. Careers do, too. After all, do we not tend to treat leaders like stocks? Buy on promise? Sell on performance, even perceived performance? And is all this to say Barack Obama is a "sell" when even his friends are "holding" him at a distance?

It’s both thoughtless, and for many, a little heartless. But it speaks to the reality of a nation’s CEO under pressure and under increasing attack, and seemingly feckless in his response. His fans no longer feel emboldened to stand by his side, and his enemies relish the disarray all this creates. It happened to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, when each had years to go in their terms...until they didn't. But history proves it can happen to anyone in any field. In business, it's commonplace. Steve Jobs saw it himself at Apple (NADAQ:AAPL) – when the company he helped create all but pushed him out the door. Jobs later returned the conquering hero, but not before having to lick his wounds and wondering what happened to all his friends. That was Jobs then. For this president, there is no second chance now. He’s got more than two years in office, yet a growing number of once loyal allies aren't only challenging, they're bolting. As political historian Larry Sabato put it to me, "The president just doesn't command  the respect he once did" or anything approaching the near awe he once inspired.

This extends not only to the president but to those who once served him and basked in his light when he was a far more popular president -- the ones for whom the president's magic once rubbed off but now seems more a voter turn-off. Maryland Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley has already indicated he’s all but running for president, whether Hillary Clinton does or not. She’s no longer seen as invincible. In fact, O'Malley seems to be betting her association with the president actually makes her vulnerable. She's old and tired. He's young and new. Go figure politics. Go figure life.

But heck, if the British could reject Winston Churchill after all he had done to lead them through the blood, sweat and tears of a world war, then why in the world are we surprised when this president's former loyalists abandon him now? Maybe John Kennedy was right. Fame really is fleeting.

JFK famously noted that success has a thousand authors and failure is an orphan. But for the current president, he's the one who seems the orphan -- alone, abandoned, alienated. His perceived failures have produced a growing throng of critical authors, all convinced they can write a better story – if only given the chance. And if only the president just ... gets out of the way.

What do you think?

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