Political Hay

Obama Catches Barking Dog Syndrome

Democrats turn on president in classic symptom warning.

By 9.13.11

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"In my district, the enthusiasm for him has mostly evaporated. There is tremendous discontent with his direction.… I have one heck of a lot of Democrats saying, 'I voted for him before, don't know if I can do it again.'" - Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon)

You can call it "Barking Dog Syndrome." Or "BDS" for short.

And Barack Obama, like 12 of his 43 presidential predecessors, almost a third of all American presidents, has contracted the politically fatal disease.

The disease that is the unmistakable sign of a president on the cusp of losing his re-election to the Land of Oz that is a second term in the White House. A looming loss always signaled by the telltale barking dogs of American politics.

What is Barking Dog Syndrome? What sets the dogs off? For that matter -- just who are these barking dogs in the first place?

The onset of BDS is always marked by the appearance of one of two red flags -- and sometimes both at the same time: Political incompetence or ideological intransigence.

When the red flags suddenly fly, with all the telltale certainty of dogs and their legendary ability to sense the danger of impending earthquakes or hurricanes -- which is to say in this case political catastrophe -- politicians from the endangered president's own party and/or the president's onetime media supporters will sniff out the incompetence or intransigence the red flags signal and, alarmed, begin barking like crazy.

BDS symptoms can manifest in any number of ways: turmoil in the presidential Cabinet, shake-ups inside the White House, loss of congressional seats in special elections or during the regular non-presidential congressional election cycle. Sniping from one-time editorial supporters in papers or media outlets across the country suddenly appears. Poll numbers begin to tank. And last but certainly not least: the quite public snapping at the presidential heels of barking politicians from within the president's own party.

Ominously for President Obama, the red flags are out and the barking of his fellow Democrats has begun. A political earthquake looms -- and Democrats like Oregon's Peter DeFazio, their political sixth sense working overtime, are furiously barking away. As in this weekend story in the New York Times, for which the paper of liberal record delicately headlined the barking dog syndrome thusly: "Democrats Fret Aloud Over Obama's Chances."

Who are the 12 presidents Obama is poised to join on a list of enforced-one termers? Their political fates signaled by the barking dogs of the day?

Some of the best known names in presidential history.

John Adams and son John Quincy Adams lead this particularly inglorious parade of BDS victims. Followed over the centuries by Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. (Cleveland, it should be noted, famously had a BDS cure of sorts, losing after his first term but making his second term a non-consecutive four years later. No one knows what Cleveland took to immunize himself from the disease.)

John Adams, only the second American president but the first president to come down with a particularly severe case of BDS, inspired so little confidence among his own Cabinet that he wound up angrily dismissing his Secretaries of State and War for anti-Adams intrigue. The dismissals drew snarling responses -- from members of his own party! -- that the second president was, in the words of historian Stefan Lorant, "too old, senile and infirm to perform his duties… and that he had no teeth, his eyesight was poor and his hands trembled with palsy." Adds Lorant in an unerringly accurate description of what eventually happens when a president is afflicted with Barking Dog Syndrome: The attacks "wrecked" Adams' party -- the Federalists -- and along with it Adams' presidency. By November of 1800, Adams made history as the first incumbent President of the United States to be defeated for re-election.

He would not be the last.

Every one of the other eleven members in this rather dubious subset of American presidents demonstrated an inability to either rally their own supporters in sufficient numbers (political incompetence -- the problem for sixth president John Quincy Adams) or were so wedded to an obviously flawed policy (think LBJ in Vietnam) that the only thing standing between these presidents and the outside of the White House gates was time.

When Barack Obama was elected, the media canonized him as the next Franklin Roosevelt. FDR the president so famously immune to Barking Dog Syndrome he was elected four times, dying of natural causes in the job. This photo shopped effort that graced the cover of Time magazine after Obama's 2008 election, depicting Obama as, literally, FDR, will be -- already is -- a classic of the genre.

In reality?

The president from the 1930s Obama in fact now resembles is Herbert Hoover. Hoover the progressive Republican who came down with a career-ending case of BDS that was so severe it has lingered throughout American history to this moment. Said Republican Senator George Norris of his own party leader, in classic barking dog style during the fall of the 1932 election: "What this country needs is another Roosevelt in the White House."

Indeed, Obama's increasing resemblance to other modern presidents afflicted with BDS grows more startling by the day.

In 1968 Lyndon Johnson was so besieged over his Vietnam policy and perceived ideological intransigence by barking dogs like Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and New York's Robert Kennedy (both Democrats) -- not to mention all manner of shouting leftist college kids -- that he finally threw up his hands and took the route of early BDS sufferer John Tyler: LBJ simply withdrew from his re-election race altogether.

Hoover refused this route, putting himself out there in spite of all the raging failure of his progressive policies that one Secret Service agent recalled seeing people run out towards passing presidential motorcades for the sole purpose of visibly and literally thumbing their noses at the BDS-suffering Hoover.

Perhaps the most notable presidential BDS victim in modern times was the hapless Jimmy Carter. As with several of his fellow presidential BDS sufferers (Hoover, Johnson, Gerald Ford), Carter's presidency had started on a high note. His popularity was high, and after the so-called "imperial presidency" of the Watergate-stained Richard Nixon, Carter's Southern charm -- the media portrayed him as a Southern-fried John F. Kennedy -- augured well.

The problem, of course, came along when Carter began turning from the moderate conservative he had portrayed himself in the 1976 campaign and began revealing a considerable liberal streak. He took on the energy crisis as "the moral equivalent of war" -- and took to television screens wearing a cardigan sweater to symbolize his energy policy while turning down the White House thermostats. Solar panels went up on the roof of the White House. The President gave a speech at Notre Dame saying that Americans had an "inordinate fear of Communism," eventually negotiating an arms control agreement with then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev -- only to watch the Soviets invade Afghanistan shortly thereafter. To Carter's professed shock. Inflation rocketed upward. So too unemployment and interest rates.

And as all of this settled in the lives and minds of the American people, Jimmy Carter found himself afflicted with the deadly BDS. Growls were heard from within the Carter administration itself. Just as with first BDS victim John Adams, there was a Cabinet shakeup, with Carter firing not two Cabinet members, as had Adams, but five. All in the quite predictable burst of bad publicity. This included his Washington-savvy health secretary Joseph Califano and treasury secretary W. Michael Blumenthal. Blumenthal, writes the late Robert Novak, sat down for a four-hour interview in which he barked that his ex-boss Carter was "a very inexperienced and poorly informed man." A Carter cruise down the Mississippi River brought mocking editorials from liberal journalists. A midterm national conference in Memphis for Democrats brought a notable first bark from Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy that the Carter administration was so skin-flinty it was issuing regulations for the school lunch program that would result in taking milk from the mouths of hungry kids. By November of 1979, Ted Kennedy's barking had turned into a full-fledged challenge to Carter. Kennedy lost, but the damage from Carter's BDS was fatal -- and Carter went on to lose in a landslide to Ronald Reagan.

The point?

Once contracted, Barking Dog Syndrome is politically fatal to its presidential victims. They simply cannot recover, their presidency perishing in a rising tide of political venom, mocking irrelevance and undeniable statistics from unemployment rates (currently cruising along in the Obama-era at a Carteresque 9.1%) to inflation numbers to lackluster job creation reports and so on. And on.

The political dogs of their own party begin to bark.

The pressure begins to build.

The polls continue to sink. 

A Republican named Bob Turner may even win former Congressman Anthony Weiner's longtime Democratic seat in Brooklyn today. Even if not: a Republican in Brooklyn doing well in the polls? This is one more sign the fever of the BDS afflicted-President rises…with the usual telltale push from his own party.

The New York Times story quoting Congressman DeFazio's snaps at the presidential heels should be read less as a news story and more as a fateful, historically telling political diagnosis.

There is news out there for liberals, and they are uncomfortably aware of it.

President Obama has contracted a fatal case of Barking Dog Syndrome.

And the barking gets louder by the day.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.