Is it too early to start writing the President's political obituary?
Just about everyone says President Barack Obama’s Democrats will lose and lose big in 2010. Some are even calling Obama a one-term president. Although it’s far too early to write Obama’s political obituary, especially in light of his formidable political skills and the fact that 2012 is light years away, all the ingredients of the unraveling of what was just 18 months ago being called “The Obama Realignment” are now in the mix.
The first ingredient is the economy. No matter how many stimulus bills are passed, industries are bailed out or speeches against “Wall Street greed” are delivered, the economy is not healthy. Unemployment is still hovering at 10 percent. The stock market is down some 20 percent from its October 2007 high. And 15 percent of homeowners are either in default or at least a month behind on their mortgage.
To be sure, Obama inherited these problems. But his party held sizable majorities in Congress as the economy cratered and the housing market imploded, and most voters know it. In other words, the “blame Bush” defense doesn’t work for congressional Democrats. And for that matter, it’s not working for Obama anymore given that most voters conclude, rightly, this is now Obama’s economy.
Hence, only 27 percent of Americans say the country is on the right track, while 64 percent say wrong track. Interestingly, that’s about the same response as in the final year of the Bush administration. (By the way, at this point in the Bush presidency—in the summer before the 2002 midterms—the right track/wrong track breakdown was 47 percent/44 percent.)
That brings us to a second ingredient: disenchantment. Many of those who supported Obama and his party in 2008 believed that the changes he and his congressional partners promised would make things better. They believed he would be different than a typical politician. Indeed, they believed he would be better.
But 18 months later, Obama is realizing that “Presidenting is hard,” as Will Ferrell put it in his caricature of President George W. Bush. And Obama’s supporters are realizing “The One” is just another politician.
He may have campaigned on fighting pork and earmarks, for instance, but he let his party lard up the stimulus package and then slipped a massive federal takeover of student loans into a healthcare bill of all things.
Likewise, he may have promised an end to politics as usual, but the president’s team offered Joe Sestak a backroom deal to protect Arlen Specter, a federal judgeship to the brother of a key swing vote on health care, a USAID post to Andrew Romanoff to stay out of a Senate race, and the quid pro quos keep coming.
That’s anything but change. That’s old-fashioned politics. And it brings us to another ingredient: the mass exodus of independent voters from Obama’s Democrats.
Obama won 52 percent of independents in 2008, an impressive feat given John McCain’s maverick credentials and cultivation of independent support over the previous two decades. But today, independent voters say they are more likely to vote for the Republican candidate in congressional elections by 37-31 percent. In the generic ballot for congressional elections, Gallup reports that Republicans lead Democrats 49-43 percent. And in a two-way race for president, “independents are more likely to back the Republican nominee (38 percent) over Obama (28 percent).”
In short, the independents are gone and will not be coming back.
Why did they bolt? From health care to cap and trade, from the gargantuan stimulus to the global apology tour, they see in Obama a revolutionary—not a reformer—and that’s not what they wanted.
This incongruence between how Candidate Obama marketed himself and how President Obama governs is a real problem—for the latter right now and the former two years from now. Take Obama’s slow-motion reaction to the oil spill as an example. When juxtaposed with his super-sized stimulus, centralized healthcare plan and cap-and-tax energy program, Obama’s oil-spill response paints on odd picture for voters of all stripes: He is laissez-faire when he should be interventionist (see the oil spill) and interventionist when he should trust the creativity of the American people (see the economy and healthcare reform).
But don’t take my word for it. As The Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson observes, the president’s initial defense for his inaction and aloofness to the spill—that he had no authority to intervene—was “a curious line of argument from an administration that has reserved the right to assassinate American citizens abroad and has nationalized much of the auto industry.”
That leads us to the stubborn reality that some of Obama’s supporters are disappointed because he hasn’t been interventionist or revolutionary enough. After all, he hasn’t nationalized the banks or withdrawn from Iraq. He hasn’t closed Gitmo or quit Afghanistan. And he actually proposed expanding offshore oil drilling. But a month later, the Gulf oil disaster smothered those plans.
In other words, the anti-war left and environmental left can find plenty wrong with their president.
Yet another bloc in Obama’s short-lived realignment is falling away because they are realizing what most of us always knew: Barack Obama is just another president forced to react and respond to events beyond his control, whether it’s an oil spill, unemployment rates, Iranian intransigence or the euro crisis.
Obama has only himself to blame for raising expectations of the true-believers. This is, after all, the man who said his presidency would mark the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal…when we ended a war and secured our nation…when we came together to remake this great nation.”
Obama’s failure to deliver has forced his followers/believers/supporters to come to what I suspect is a crushing realization for them: Neither he nor his government can do everything—or perhaps anything, as Frank Rich of the New York Times observed last month. “The very notion that government can accomplish anything,” according to Rich, is “being tarred daily” by the Obama White House’s “record of incompletes.”
This is not to say that center-left and hard-left voters will support Republicans, of course, but rather that many of them will just sit out the election. Along with the loss of independents, that will make for a long election night for the president and his congressional allies.
Alan Dowd writes on politics and public policy.