Obama's Inexperience Is Showing

The president is working to show his energy and vigor outweigh his youth.

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Video: Barack Obama 5th Youngest President

Is President Obama's inexperience showing?

When he was inaugurated last January at age 47, he was the fifth-youngest president in history, and his vigor, fresh approach to problems, and promise of change struck a powerful chord. His charisma was undeniable as he surrounded himself with a gauzy aura of hope and optimism.

Now, things look a lot different. His job-approval rating has dropped about 20 points to 50 percent or lower. And his policies are increasingly unpopular, especially on healthcare legislation, taxes, and controlling the deficit. Just as important, Americans are deeply divided on his plan to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Many people believe Obama is getting the United States ever more deeply immersed in a quagmire.

More broadly, Obama seems to be contributing to an antigovernment backlash. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that only 23 percent of Americans say they trust the government to do the right thing "always or most of the time," the lowest percentage of trust in 12 years. This raises the question of whether Obama has pushed too hard for government activism. When he began his presidency, he said only the federal government had the wherewithal to solve the nation's biggest problems, especially on the economy and in overhauling the healthcare system. But he may be outrunning the public's tolerance for big, expensive federal solutions.

To many, the root of Obama's dilemma is inexperience and naiveté, spawned by his lack of familiarity with national and international issues and the way Washington works. In fact, some Republicans say Team Obama is one misstep away from creating a lasting impression of being the gang that can't shoot straight. The bill of particulars includes an economic stimulus package that hasn't reduced unemployment to tolerable levels, government bailouts of banks and automakers without comparable help for everyday Americans, a very messy debate on healthcare with questionable prospects for success, and a massive buildup of the national debt, which is projected at $12 trillion next year. There was also an unpopular decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to hold trials for suspected 9/11 terrorists in a New York civilian court instead of a military tribunal.

And there have been smaller matters that caused some people to shake their heads in baffled amazement. That list includes President Obama bowing to Japanese Emperor Akihito during a foreign trip, which critics considered too deferential. There was the Air Force One flyover of New York earlier this year for publicity photos, with no advance notice to the public—resulting in widespread fear among New Yorkers that it was another terrorist attack. Obama didn't know about the flyover ahead of time, and the staffer responsible resigned. Currently, there is the furor over how a publicity-seeking couple could have breached security and attended a state dinner at the White House, apparently without being invited.

Americans are beginning to connect the dots, GOP strategists say. "If the public concludes it's amateur hour at the White House, it will be a real problem for them," notes a former senior adviser to a GOP president.

Obama's ability to serve effectively as a wartime president is of particular concern to the critics. Simply being young isn't really a problem if a commander in chief has military experience. And of the four youngest presidents besides Obama, three had led men in combat—Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War, John F. Kennedy in World War II, and Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War. This gave them stature and credibility in dealing with national security issues despite their tender years. But Bill Clinton, the third youngest, had no military experience, and he endured considerable criticism as a national security neophyte.

Obama has taken pains to insulate himself from criticism that he doesn't understand the military. He frequently visits the troops and talks often about how much he admires America's men and women in uniform. And he has installed some impressive military advisers around him, including veteran Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Marine Gen. James Jones as his national security adviser.