“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them,” President Barack Obama declared in his inaugural address in January 2009. “The stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
What a difference a year makes.
Arriving in Washington on the eve of President Obama’s “bipartisan” healthcare summit, I found the capital more divided than ever. What’s more, the political momentum that carried Obama to the White House seems to have deserted him. As Juan Williams, the author and political analyst for National Public Radio and Fox News, remarked to me: “For this to happen just one year after he was elected with an historic majority, and on such a tremendous tide of popular goodwill is just astounding.”
Recent events show that Obama, once the Democratic Party’s greatest asset, may have become a liability. Over the past three months, Republicans have won three major electoral victories against Democratic incumbents by campaigning against Obama explicitly, and his approval rating has dropped by nearly 20 per cent since his Inauguration, the steepest decline in a first-year President’s approval rating ever recorded.
“In five decades of closely following American politics, I have never seen the Democratic Party in worse shape,” noted the political analyst Michael Barone, whose biennial Almanac of American Politics is required reading in political circles. Just a year ago, the Republicans were preparing themselves for a long spell in the political wilderness. Today, they are energised and readying themselves for a reprise in November of the 1994 midterm elections in which the Republicans took back the House of Representatives.
Speaking in his office overlooking McPherson Square, Kenneth Weinstein, the CEO of the Hudson Institute think-tank, summarised the conservative take on Obama’s downfall. “He fundamentally misinterpreted his mandate,” Weinstein argued. “Obama and his advisers believed that the financial crisis would make Americans embrace the kind of big government solutions which they usually oppose. They were wrong.”
This mistake has lost Obama the support of the electoral centre. In the 2009 gubernatorial elections, Republicans gained two-thirds of the independent vote, and the newly-elected Senator Scott Brown won an astonishing three-quarters of independents in heavily Democratic Massachusetts. Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, explained the importance of this reversal over lunch in a popular DC sandwich shop.
“Voters in the centre elected him because of his radically anti-partisan rhetoric,” Caldwell remarked. “Yet as you see with his handling of the comprehensive healthcare Bill, he has turned into possibly the most partisan president in recent history.” As I made my way to K Street — the home of Washington’s lobbying industry — the significance of this observation was brought home by a fleeting glimpse of the former Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, an apt reminder of how quickly fortunes can turn for a polarising administration.
Whatever his post-partisan rhetoric, the left-of-centre course Obama has charted should come as no surprise to anyone who followed his Senate career or read his campaign pledges. So why the backlash? “He has not been disingenuous in pursuing this agenda,” said William Galston, former adviser to President Bill Clinton and a political theorist at the Brookings Institution. “So those who have accused him of backing down on his campaign pledges were perhaps listening to the poetry of the campaign, but not the prose.”
Fouad Ajami, the director of the Middle East studies programme at Johns Hopkins University, argued that the rise and fall of Obama should be interpreted in the context of charismatic leaders of mass movements in the Third World. “The American people got the President they deserved,” he told me. “He was a vessel into which the crowd poured their desires — they were not looking at the substance of the person they were electing.”
The liberal pundits I spoke to felt that Obama’s present troubles were less an outright rejection of his agenda than an inevitable manifestation of widespread anxiety over the economy. “Ultimately, this isn’t that complicated,” said Noam Scheiber, a senior editor at the New Republic. “When the official unemployment rate is 10 per cent, the President’s popularity will inevitably suffer.”
“Ever since Roosevelt, the President has been held responsible for the welfare of the economy, so in that sense Obama was bound to take a hit,” added William Galston.
“However well he may be dealing with it, a bad economy will always harm a president,” agreed Matthew Continetti, an associate editor at the Weekly Standard. “But the town hall meetings, the tea parties, national polls and the Republican electoral victories indicate that the American people have rejected the substance of the President’s agenda — particularly his stance on healthcare.”
Certainly, Obama’s dogged pursuit of a comprehensive healthcare Bill seems to have been the tipping point for voters increasingly alarmed by the expansion of government, increase in federal spending and the visible proliferation of Chicago-style wheeler-dealing. At 2,409 pages long (at the time of writing), the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a collection of mandates, price controls, entitlements, regulations, taxes and barely-concealed political kickbacks. The Congressional Budget Office has projected it will cause individual insurance premiums (ie, insurance plans not obtained through an employer) to rise by up to 13 per cent and will cost an estimated $4.9 trillion over the next 20 years. According to a recent CNN poll, only 25 per cent of Americans support the current comprehensive Bill, while a staggering 73 per cent want it abandoned.
While liberal observers dispute that the healthcare reform saga amounts to a rejection of Obama’s agenda, many do feel that it may have been strategically unwise to pursue it so early in his presidency. “He should have focused on jobs and the economy from the beginning — that’s what he ran on, and that’s what he won on,” Juan Williams reasoned. “By pursuing healthcare, he made it look as if that was not his top priority, and he inadvertently appeared to be out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.”
William Galston exlained:, “He has been compelled by circumstance to inject billions into the economy through the stimulus Bill. While I think that was completely necessary, I think a lot of Americans were shocked by that level of spending, and following it up with the healthcare Bill may have increased that sense of unease.”
There are also profound cultural reasons for public opposition to the Bill. In contrast to British voters, who consider nationalised healthcare a positive right, the American public is generally suspicious of any assertion of government control over individual decisions. It’s an essentially libertarian ethos dating back to the American Revolution — which may be another reason why Obama’s current struggle confuses many of his admirers across the pond.Peter Beinart, the author and former editor of the New Republic, believes the President should use his authority to build a society closer to a social-democratic model. “The central question of Obama’s presidency will be whether we have transitioned from Reagan’s America to one in which major progressive change can be achieved,” Beinart remarked. “I am personally hopeful that this will be the case, but it’s certainly a pretty big task.”
Beinart’s position seemed quite tenable to me. Yet the resurgence of small-government rhetoric among the tea party movement and in recent elections indicates that the pendulum may have swung the other way. As Caldwell observed, “There is a difference between principles and the culture as it exists on the ground. So Obama’s agenda may very well make sense as an argument, but it does not make political sense if you consider the wishes and habits of the American people.”
Obama’s current troubles may also be related to the way in which he perceives and executes his role as President. The somewhat ambiguous nature of executive power as defined by the US Constitution has historically presented the President with unique challenges. On the one hand, the President should promote policies that he judges to be in the best interest of the country, and thereby act as a bulwark against the shifting popular passions that often influence Congress. On the other hand, he must have the instincts to judge when a policy is politically unacceptable to the people.
Obama’s lack of executive or even managerial experience did not prepare him well for this balancing act. “My essays examining Obama’s rise to power chronicle a fall foretold,” Fouad Ajami contended. “He had no real governing experience, and his plans relied on the supposition that his policies would succeed because he, the Saviour, was the one who proposed them. So the destination was always going to be disappointment.”
From the stimulus package to the healthcare Bill, Obama has allowed his signature domestic initiatives to be authored and largely controlled by the ultra-partisan Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In light of the fact that Congress was even less popular than George W. Bush at the time of Obama’s Inauguration, it is unclear why the President thought it wise to put his domestic agenda in their hands. “Maybe it’s because he was a legislator and had so little experience running anything, but he has left far too much up to Congress,” said Kenneth Weinstein.
Has the great communicator lost his touch?
Obama has thrown all of his political weight behind a final push to win over House Democrats who previously voted against the Bill, with Nancy Pelosi engaging in a strong-arm campaign of such intensity that some suggest it may permanently isolate moderate Democrats in Congress. There has even been some speculation that Senator Evan Bayh’s withdrawal from the Indiana Democratic primary was not only a repudiation of the party’s leadership but also a signal that he may challenge Obama in the Democratic primaries for the 2012 Presidential election.
In times of populist ferment, the President’s best asset is his ability to appeal directly to the American people. Yet many speculate that Obama has lost his coveted connection with the electorate. “He comes across as a lecturing professor,” remarked Matthew Continetti. This tendency was certainly evident during his State of the Union speech, in which he attributed public opposition to the healthcare Bill to his failure to “explain it” sufficiently. “That speech was Obama at his worst — platitudinous and condescending,” said Continetti. “And people are getting really tired of this monarchical style he has cultivated.”
If there’s anyone Americans like less than a monarch, it’s a lawyer. And if there’s anyone Americans like less than a lawyer, it’s a terrorist. That said, the legalistic approach the administration has taken to terrorism was never likely to impress voters. From the seemingly arbitrary decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a federal court (despite the continued and legal use of military tribunals), to the bungled arrest and interrogation of the alleged Detroit plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the administration has managed to appear both obsessed with procedure and ignorant of the law in matters of national security.
“In the Scott Brown election, the sleeper issue was national security,” commented Michael Barone. “While people trust Obama on this overall, on specific issues such as closing Guantanamo and the handling of Abdulmutallab they strongly dissent from the administration’s approach.”
Not only has the administration failed to develop convincing or coherent policies on such crucial issues, but a series of mistakes made in the past year, particularly by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder, raise serious doubts as to the competence of the President’s national security team. This puts the administration in a vulnerable position in the event of a successful terrorist attack, as it will inevitably be the first to be blamed by the Republicans and, quite probably, the public at large.
From 9/11 to the financial crisis, the past decade has reinforced the extent to which “events, dear boy, events” cause political fortunes to prosper or suffer. At present, anxiety over the economy and other domestic concerns appears to have diverted American attention from foreign affairs. Obama has responded to this parochial moment by focusing primarily on domestic policy — so foreign policy has clearly not factored into the decline in his public support.
Yet the combination of naiveté, cynicism and strategic incoherence which has characterised Obama’s foreign policy may leave the President susceptible to accusations of weakness in the event of a crisis: for instance, the increasingly-likely prospect of a nuclear Iran. “I think he has a sincere but ultimately unjustified belief in his own powers of persuasion,” remarked Caldwell. “This may mean that his foreign policy will be a disappointment in the way that Carter’s was.” The invocation of Carter invites an interesting historical parallel, as Carter was rendered a one-term president as much for his botched handling of the 1979 Islamic Revolution as for his disastrous economic policies.
During my time in Washington, DC, the top question under discussion was definitely whether the healthcare Bill would pass. But the second most discussed was: win or lose, will Obama survive?
“In the long term, only a Republican victory in the midterm elections can save him,” Matthew Continetti suggested. “That will force him to start making bipartisan compromises, and it may then convince him to do what Bill Clinton did in 1994: tack to the centre and rebuild the public’s trust.”
If the spectre of Jimmy Carter haunts Obama’s foreign policy, then Bill Clinton is the ghost of healthcare reform-past. For the past 15 years, Clinton’s failed reform plan — also introduced in his first year in office — has been a cautionary tale of the electoral consequences of pushing a left-wing agenda. Whereas Clinton interpreted the Republican victory in 1994 as a clear sign that he needed to move to the centre, Obama seems to have no intention of following this example. If anything, his position has become more intractable and partisan as public opinion has turned against him.
“I think it’s significant that he followed up the Scott Brown election by announcing his intent to end the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy for homosexuals serving in the military,” Caldwell remarked. “Leaving aside the merits of the policy itself, the issue of whether homosexuals should be able to serve openly was considered one of Clinton’s signature liberal policies, which he decided to concede because of the resurgence of conservatism in the mid-Nineties. By reviving this issue, I think Obama is telling us that he is not going to concede anything.”
Although the confluence of charisma and Democratic credentials seemed to suggest a similarity between the two men, Clinton’s fabled ability to win over any crowd derived from a more down-to-earth, populist style rooted in his own humble Arkansas origins, whereas Obama appears increasingly out of touch with the mainstream. And as Peter Beinart pointed out to me, Obama lacks the centrist credentials which Clinton amassed as Governor of Arkansas: “Bill Clinton ran on a less liberal platform in 1992, so when he pivoted to the centre in 1994 it seemed like a more natural shift. Obama doesn’t have that kind of a record, so while he may make some tactical retreats, I think the centre of gravity will not shift substantially.”
Obama may well be the anti-Clinton, inasmuch as his ideological commitment outweighs his political pragmatism. He appears so convinced by the merit of his agenda, and so unmoved by public opposition, that he has said he would “rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” He may well get his wish.
“I was at a Washington Wizards basketball game the other night,” recounted Juan Williams. “At the half-time break, a friend of mine tapped me on the shoulder and just said: ‘Failed Presidency.’ Now, this guy is a really prominent lawyer and a huge Obama supporter, yet he’s convinced it’s all over. I think that assessment is probably premature — but the fact remains, he has made a lot of errors very early on.”
With three years left in his first term, President Obama certainly has an opportunity to recover from his anti-climactic first year in office, provided he learns from his mistakes. “The past year has taught us that Obama cannot resist the laws of gravity,” said Fouad Ajami. “That doesn’t mean it’s time to start writing his political obituary yet, but his future clearly depends on whether he has the political antennae to start making the necessary adjustments.”
Instead of pretending, as he did in his Inaugural speech, that the “old arguments no longer apply”, Obama would do well to acknowledge some enduring truths about life in power: it’s messy and it requires a careful balance of both principle and compromise. But it also requires an element of intuition, an understanding of the people you govern and what they will and will not tolerate.