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The definitive, final, once and for all, Obama's-honeymoon-is-over story...

Mark it on your calendars.  It was in June 2009 that Barack Obama's honeymoon officially ended.  And to be more specific, it was this past week.  Through some mysterious alchemy, this was the week that Bush's economy became Obama's, Bush's wars became Obama's, and the ups and downs of a real workaday relationship with the press also introduced Obama to a more accurate sense of what life was like for Bush and for all his other modern predecessors.

While the change is clear for the reasons I will note below, no one should lament the end of the honeymoon, even though it may be hard for Obama and his colleagues in the Administration not to.  It must be nice looking out into the White House press room and seeing all those hardened reporters looking as dewy-eyed and adoring as a teen-aged girl who discovers that Robert Pattinson has appeared at her doorstep to take her to the prom.  But five months is not bad for a honeymoon.  I've had two and the best I could do was a little over a week.   (During the first honeymoon, my new wife spent most of the few days we had throwing up...which should have been an early warning sign that another honeymoon would be in the cards.)

Of course, people have been writing about the end of Obama's honeymoon since the day he arrived in office.  But let me offer 10 solid pieces of evidence that it was over by this week.  And I say this despite the unnerving fact that the Daily Kos seems to agree with my assessment...and shored up by the fact that NBC's Chuck Todd, CNN's Jack Cafferty, CQ, the Huffington Post, the New York Daily News, and a host of other media outlets all seem to agree by having grappled with the issue...or, depending on how you look at it, succumbed to the conventional wisdom...in the past week or 10 days.  Just goes to show: even the conventional wisdom is right every once in a while.

Media herd mentality aside, here are 10 reasons (in no particular order) why a reasonable person might conclude that we have entered a new chapter in the Obama presidency in the past few days:

1. Ask not for whom the poll tolls...

The most common reason cited by pundits for saying Obama's entered a new phase was polling data, like an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll citing growing doubts about the administration's economic policies.  He is seen as the author of budget deficit increases (even though he is responsible for only a tiny fraction of projected shortfalls), an expanded government role in the economy and moves in Detroit that have a majority of voters uneasy...which also suggests that we're on Obama Time now in the economy. It's his to fix or screw up further.

2. Can we be frank?

Sometimes a hot dog is just a hot dog. But sometimes visions of July 4th frankfurter diplomacy with representatives of the Iranian regime, among others, suggest real foreign policy short-sightedness. Hadn't anyone thought through what might happen in the elections? Of course, the cook-out kerfuffle was just pigs in a blanket compared to the administration's tentativeness in response to the unrest in Iran. It might have been the right call at first, but the Iranian crisis quickly revealed that even charming, smart presidents get hamstrung on issues where there are few good responses and none without some negative consequences.

3. No matter who is president, Kim Jong Il is still nuts...

Kim Jong Il has spent the past month reinforcing the preceding point.  "You may be Mr. Charisma," he says via his missile tests and nuclear experiments, "by I am Mr. Certifiable Loon. Which in the rock-paper-scissors of international diplomacy means I win every time." All of a sudden, Obama finds when it comes to North Korea...and a host of other places...sitting in the Oval Office makes him look and act a lot like his predecessor no matter how much he wishes it weren't so.

4. Speaking of nuts, what about U.S. trade rhetoric?

One sign that the sweet glide is over is when after you mete out a policy here and a policy there, you look back and discover none of it makes any sense.  In the past week USTR Ron Kirk has threatened to go after the EU if they offer more financial help to Airbus and a few days earlier the US was threatening to go after China for the Buy Chinese provisions in their stimulus package. But, um, aren't we subsidizing Detroit and don't we have Buy America provisions in our stimulus package? As my daughters would say, "awkward!"

5. Obama's doctor and his financial guru turn on him in one week...

At the height of the economic crisis, Warren Buffet was the sage that helped win the election for Obama. Then this week he demonstrates that troubling candor and independence that made him so widely respected by going starkly off message. He joked that despite recent eye surgery he doesn't see any "green shoots" in the economy. He also called it a shambles. Then Obama's own doctor went after the health care plan. Et tu, Bones? Keep your friends close, they say, and your enemies closer. But what happens when they start to sound alike?

6. Kissing up to a president who smokes is like kissing an ashtray...

The president insists he is only an occasional smoker.  Doesn't matter.  Smoking is gross, sets a bad example and is so 20th Century. It may have been cool in the parking lot at Punahou, Mr. President, but not in the Rose Garden. The nastiness over questions for the president on this subject also really captured the testy relationship emerging between the president and his former groupies in the press corp, best described in a New York Times account that made you feel "if this is how testy he gets this early in the game, what should we expect when he's been stewing in office for a few years?"

7. Fixing health care can be dangerous to your political health...

Health care is the one area of the U.S. economy most urgently in need of a major structural fix... and that's saying something. But, according to one senator with whom I spoke, "the health care battle is certain to leave blood on the walls...and that's just among us Democrats." It has shredded formidable pols in the past (place a call to Foggy Bottom if you don't recall) and while an Obama win is likely in the long-run, it may drain the energy from other pursuits.

8. Warming is global but all politics are local...

Among those casualties of health care reform is likely to be getting a climate bill out of the Congress this year. The Administration is pulling out the stops (to their credit) behind Waxman-Markey... but insiders say what with health care in the way, a deal in the Senate is unlikely before the Copenhagen summit in December. The U.S. will therefore go in saying "this is what we might be able to do" which could be a great negotiating ploy or a real problem if it pushes China and the developing countries to say, "we won't commit until you do... and even then we'll need a long runway to hard limits." This is a signature issue for the president and it looks like it won't happen till 2010 in the best case.

9. Hillary's fracture was not the first in the administration...

Hillary falls and breaks her elbow...and some people in White House offices are amused and making jokes. In fact, some folks in the State Department are doing likewise. Why, because the one big happy family fantasy that every administration enters with is starting to morph into a more typical reality. First leaked shots against Jim Jones. Then same against HRC. Even early signs of jockeying to replace what some see as a likely Jones departure in a year or two. (Go for the Trifecta on Rice, Steinberg and Holbrooke to win, place and show. But who finishes first? Only Dennis McDonough knows for sure.)

10. The "politics of change" succumbs to politics as usual...

The honeymoon is over when you have to roll up and put away your old campaign slogans. As the big donors start measuring the curtains for their embassies worldwide, it's clear that "the politics of change" has been overtaken by events...like the big fund-raising events which feature the president slipping through loopholes in order to appear to turn away from lobbyist money while actually raising bucks for the party the old fashioned way.

And, of course, because the intractable problems keep piling up in the president's inbox and the responses to them inevitably make them the unwanted property of this president rather than merely a legacy from the last, I could easily make a much longer list. Pakistan is an incurable and deepening mess. So's Afghanistan. Our guy on the ground in Baghdad is calling the departure of U.S. troops a victory for the Iraqi people. Our strongest vote of confidence in the Middle East comes from Hamas leaders who are absolutely certain to screw us the minute negotiations get tough. The global economy is still on life support. California is tanking. 

Other signs the days of moonlight and violins are over? You can only buy one puppy per term of office. (I think it's in the constitution.) Michelle can't carry him forever. Biden fatigue. And of course, the number one reason of them all: it's just plain time for the honeymoon to be over anyway.

That's 20 reasons off the top of my head. To me that is as convincing a message as my first wife barfing into the private dip pool in Grenada while abandoned Cuban military vehicles rusted in the distance. The honeymoon is done. Time for a real life marriage. For better or for worse.

AFP/Getty Images 

David Rothkopf

Heeeeere's Barack!: On sidekicks, new stars, and Tony Blair in a plaid sports coat...

Last night, Conan O'Brien offered a tribute to Ed McMahon, longtime sidekick to his predecessor Johnny Carson. McMahon died yesterday and was eulogized in today's New York Times as the "top second banana." O'Brien commented on how, as a great number two guy, Ed always knew just when to step in and when to step back and leave the spotlight to the headliner. He was completely in tune with Carson and together they formed a seamless whole. Naturally, mulling this, my thoughts turned to England and the current situation in Iran.

Sidekicks have, of course, long played a central role in the history of international affairs. Adolf had Benito. Nikita had Fidel. Cheney had Bush. Today, Hugo has Evo.

Such sidekicks are employed in multiple ways. Sometimes they simply stand by the star for support, sending the message that the views the big guy expresses are more than the ideas of one nation, that they drive a movement, an alliance or an axis. Sometimes they play bad cop to the good cop. Sometimes they are the fall guys when the star can't afford to take the hit. Sometimes, they offer comic relief. Sometimes, they handle the secondary chores, like invading British Somaliland when you just don't have the time to do it yourself. And on certain occasions, sidekicks even offer benefits to one's enemies or rivals, giving them a secondary target at which to direct everything from invective to troops, depending on the circumstances.

Of course, in the international affairs business, there have been few modern stars that have shined quite so brightly for so long as the United States. As a consequence, we have over the years been joined on stage by a panoply of Ed McMahons. Sometimes they played with us only on regional stages, like Vietnam or Israel. Some have played the role well in countless circumstances, like Canada. 

But there have been no sidekicks as enduring or as useful in modern international affairs as the U.K. has been to the United States. You can almost see British prime ministers sitting on the couch laughing while their respective U.S. presidents cracked wise behind the big desk. Put a plaid sports coat on Tony Blair and it's clear: He was the Ed McMahon of the Iraq War.

The trick is that as the headliner changes, so too does the role of the sidekick. Affable Ronald Reagan needed edgy Margaret Thatcher, the Joan Rivers of British politics. Bland George H.W. Bush required even blander John Major. Blair managed to adjust his role as the submissive sophisticate to suit the two bubbas with whom he worked.

The most recent twist in this enduring relationship has been playing out in Iran these past few weeks. There, with Barack Obama's United States no longer quite so hate-able as Bush's (or Carter's for that matter), and with Obama inclined to pursue a more aloof strategy, the U.K. has started playing a different part. On the one hand, it has been more out in front in its criticism of the Iranians. And on the other, the British have assumed the role of preferred Western target for the Tehran leadership. They are the substitute villain, the Rather Good Satan standing in while the Great One tries a different approach for a change.

Of course, for sidekicks as for the rest of the world, the transition from Bush to Obama has been seismic and deeply challenging. The host has somehow gone from being a somewhat less sophisticated version of Jeff Foxworthy ("you know your president is a redneck when he can be compared to a Blue Collar Comedy tour star") to being the love child of Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley. 

Britain has ably stepped up, perhaps recognizing that it is in their interest and the planet's to have a headliner of the western world who neither delivers nor takes all the punch lines. So too, at least in terms of their stance on the Iran issue, have Germany and France. In fact, throughout the Obama term, the roles played by Angela Merkel (acerbic, more independent, critical of the United States on financial markets reform) and Nicolas Sarkozy (pushing for greater market reform too, but also both more visible and more visibly supportive of the U.S. than any recent French leader), have also evolved into something new. This is clearly due in large part to who they are...but it is also due to a changed dynamic on the international stage thanks to the very different nature of the role sought and played by Obama and the United States.

This effect extends further, of course. Enemies and those with competing offerings find they have to play a different role as well thanks to the arrival of Obama on the scene. Those whose shtick has been anti-American bluster find it doesn't play as well as it did back when George Bush made anti-Americanism easy. The case in point here may well be Ahmadinejad...although Hugo Chavez and others ought to pay close attention here. As in late night comedy...as in everything that happens on any stage...the play is about the relationships between the players. Change one and you fundamentally change the chemistry among all of them.    

In fact, this chemistry factor may be the single greatest foreign policy change of the first half year of the Obama era. (After all, many of his policies are actually not that different from what Bush would have or did employ.) Later, of course, the president will be judged by how he manages the complex processes of global policy. But for now, for allies and enemies alike, having a new star with a very different vibe has changed the roles of all the supporting players, second bananas and rivals alike, all of whom must to some extent play off of the new guy and who have thus been changed by his arrival whether they like it or realize it or not.

It's sad to see a trusty old sideman like Ed McMahon go. But as for having a new guy with top billing on the world stage, the early results seem to suggest that may play very well indeed.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images