Henninger: Obama's Credibility Is Melting
Here and abroad, Obama's partners are concluding they cannot trust him.
Oct. 23, 2013 7:14 p.m. ET
The collapse of ObamaCare is the tip of the iceberg for the magical Obama presidency.
From the moment he emerged in the public eye with his 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention and through his astonishing defeat of the Clintons in 2008, Barack Obama's calling card has been credibility. He speaks, and enough of the world believes to keep his presidency afloat. Or used to.
All of a sudden, from Washington to Riyadh, Barack Obama's credibility is melting.
Amid the predictable collapse the past week of HealthCare.gov's too-complex technology, not enough notice was given to Sen. Marco Rubio's statement that the chances for success on immigration reform are about dead. Why? Because, said Sen. Rubio, there is "a lack of trust" in the president's commitments.
"This notion that they're going to get in a room and negotiate a deal with the president on immigration," Sen. Rubio said Sunday on Fox News, "is much more difficult to do" after the shutdown negotiations of the past three weeks.
Sen. Rubio said he and other reform participants, such as Idaho's Rep. Raul Labrador, are afraid that if they cut an immigration deal with the White House—say, offering a path to citizenship in return for strong enforcement of any new law—Mr. Obama will desert them by reneging on the enforcement.
When belief in the average politician's word diminishes, the political world marks him down and moves away. With the president of the United States, especially one in his second term, the costs of the credibility markdown become immeasurably greater. Ask the Saudis.
Last weekend the diplomatic world was agog at the refusal of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to accept a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Global disbelief gave way fast to clear understanding: The Saudis have decided that the United States is no longer a reliable partner in Middle Eastern affairs.
The Saudi king, who supported Syria's anti-Assad rebels early, before Islamic jihadists polluted the coalition, watched Mr. Obama's red line over Assad's use of chemical weapons disappear into an about-face deal with Vladimir Putin. The next time King Abdullah looked up, Mr. Obama was hanging the Saudis out to dry yet again by phoning up Iran's President Hasan Rouhani, Assad's primary banker and armorer, to chase a deal on nuclear weapons. Within days, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, Prince Bandar, let it be known that the Saudis intend to distance themselves from the U.S.
What is at issue here is not some sacred moral value, such as "In God We Trust." Domestic politics or the affairs of nations are not an avocation for angels. But the coin of this imperfect realm is credibility. Sydney Greenstreet's Kasper Gutman explained the terms of trade in "The Maltese Falcon": "I must tell you what I know, but you won't tell me what you know. That is hardly equitable, sir. I don't think we can do business along those lines."
Bluntly, Mr. Obama's partners are concluding that they cannot do business with him. They don't trust him. Whether it's the Saudis, the Syrian rebels, the French, the Iraqis, the unpivoted Asians or the congressional Republicans, they've all had their fill of coming up on the short end with so mercurial a U.S. president. And when that happens, the world's important business doesn't get done. It sits in a dangerous and volatile vacuum.
The next major political event in Washington is the negotiation over spending, entitlements and taxes between House budget chairman Paul Ryan and his Senate partner, Patty Murray. The bad air over this effort is the same as that Marco Rubio says is choking immigration reform: the fear that Mr. Obama will urge the process forward in public and then blow up any Ryan-Murray agreement at the 11th hour with deal-killing demands for greater tax revenue.
Then there is Mr. Obama's bond with the American people, which is diminishing with the failed rollout of the Affordable Care Act. ObamaCare is the central processing unit of the Obama presidency's belief system. Now the believers are wondering why the administration suppressed knowledge of the huge program's problems when hundreds of tech workers for the project had to know this mess would happen Oct. 1.
Rather than level with the public, the government's most senior health-care official, Kathleen Sebelius, spent days spewing ludicrous and incredible happy talk about the failure, while refusing to provide basic information about its cause.
Voters don't normally accord politicians unworldly levels of belief, but it has been Barack Obama's gift to transform mere support into victorious credulousness. Now that is crumbling, at great cost. If here and abroad, politicians, the public and the press conclude that Mr. Obama can't play it straight, his second-term accomplishments will lie only in doing business with the world's most cynical, untrustworthy partners. The American people are the ones who will end up on the short end of those deals.