As a quick glance online Friday showed, President Obama's sagging popularity is producing a cottage industry for political diagnosticians. In the Washington Post, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson proclaimed "the lost promise of Barack Obama" even as his colleague Eugene Robinson touted "President Obama's winning streak." Elsewhere, an incredulous Kevin Drum mauled Aaron David Miller's claim that "Americans aren't so much looking for great presidents, big ideas or historic transformations" but "satisfaction on mundane matters." Meanwhile, Miller's Los Angeles Times colleague Andrew Malcolm pretended that Congressional Democrats - and not unprecedented Republican obstructionism - have derailed the Obama agenda.
There is no question that the ferocity and totality of Republican opposition to Barack Obama on everything from economic stimulus and health care to unemployment benefits and judicial nomination has taken a serious toll on his standing with the American people. And more than anything else, the severity of the Bush recession is the central political reality on the ground. But the worst kinds of political wounds are self-inflicted. And for Barack Obama and his supporters, that may be the greatest tragedy of all.
In recent weeks, the President and his political adviser David Axelrod have tried to brush off Obama's slide. For his book, The Promise," President Obama told Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, "I said during the transition that my political capital would go down pretty rapidly," On July 11, Axelrod said, "This is no big surprise," telling ABC's This Week:
"I think I've said this to you before. When I -- when I sat down with the president and his economic advisers, a group of us in the middle of 2008, and they told us what was about to ensure and -- about the recession that we were well into at that point, I said to him, you know, we're going to -- your numbers are going to suffer here, and we're going to have a difficult election, because these are going to be difficult times for the country."
And thanks to what has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, extremely difficult times for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.
The economic downturn two wars, a disastrous oil spill, and infighting with the "professional left" over gay rights, torture, the surveillance state and other issues were necessary but not sufficient conditions for the resurrection of the Republican Party. That political exhumation required Barack Obama's self-defeating obsession with bipartisanship and consensus that only served to embolden the GOP, undermine public policy and disillusion the electorate.
Nowhere was this dynamic more true than with the economic stimulus package passed in early 2009.
Writing in The New Yorker last fall, Ryan Lizza recounted how President Obama and his advisers, especially Larry Summers, concluded that discretion was the better part of valor when it came to the $1.2 trillion package many felt was needed. Christina Romer's analysis was never brought to the table.
Instead, President Obama set the pattern that would define much of his first year in office. Hostage to his own fetish of bipartisanship, Obama would make major concessions to Republicans before the negotiations even started. In return, he was greeted with virtually total Republican opposition. On the stimulus as on health care and so much else, President Obama extended his hand to the GOP, only to be slapped in the face.
The result has been a triple whammy for the President and his party. First, the recovery has been slower than it otherwise could have been. Second, the economy's slow ramp up has created a perception problem: Americans wrongly believe the stimulus has failed despite incontrovertible evidence of its success at producing jobs and economic growth. And last, the political blowback from that perception is not only making a second stimulus bill almost impossible, but threatens to wipe out the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
From the beginning, Paul Krugman was prescient about the political path the recovery from the Bush recession would take. On January 5th, 2009, Krugman warned then President-elect Obama about the stimulus plan, "Look, Republicans are not going to come on board. Make 40% of the package tax cuts, they'll demand 100%." The next day on January 6th, Krugman warned that the $787 billion recovery package was not only too small, but would pose dire political consequences for President Obama:
I see the following scenario: a weak stimulus plan, perhaps even weaker than what we're talking about now, is crafted to win those extra GOP votes. The plan limits the rise in unemployment, but things are still pretty bad, with the rate peaking at something like 9 percent and coming down only slowly. And then Mitch McConnell says "See, government spending doesn't work."
In October, Krugman updated his grim assessment. "I went back to my first blog post -- January 6, 2009 -- worrying that the Obama economic plan was too cautious...Alas, I didn't have it wrong -- except that unemployment will, if we're lucky, peak around 10 percent, not 9." A second stimulus would almost surely be required, an economic necessity that politically would be almost impossible to produce. As Ezra Klein recently described the self-fulfilling prophecy that unfolded for President Obama:
Ten percent unemployment and a terrible recession ended up discrediting the people trying to do more for the economy, as their previous intervention was deemed a failure. That, in turn, empowered the people attempting to do less for the economy. So rather than a modestly sized stimulus leaving the door open for more stimulus if needed, its modest size was used to discredit the idea of more stimulus when it became needed.
On health care, too, President Obama's trademark risk aversion and quixotic search for consensus boomeranged politically while watering down the final product itself.
In refusing to commit his political prestige and capital to specific provisions of the emerging health care bill in 2009, President Obama may well "overlearned" the Clinton lesson from 16 years earlier. Heading into the August recess last year, the President simply failed Marketing 101: know your audience, define the program, brand it and relentlessly sell it with bullet-point messages. The result was the fury of the town hall meetings and Republican mythmaking , which have dominated the media narrative ever since.
And by trusting his future to the Gang of Six, President Obama put his political future and the substance of his health care reforms in the hands of conservatives who would regardless never deliver Republican votes. As time, momentum and the President's stratospheric approval ratings slipped away, popular, cost-saving measures like a public option or Medicare buy-in were dropped. Only when Obama came out swinging after the Scott Brown fiasco in Massachusetts and the shocking (and political helpful) rate increase by Anthem did his prospects improve. By the time the Affordable Care Act was passed in March, public support for health care reform had plummeted. It is only now slowly recovering.
No doubt, as Jonathan Alter rightly claims, Barack Obama's signature achievement with the passage of the Affordable Care Act was historic. But with his leadership style came a steep price. The year-long bloodletting over health care not only politically weakened him and his Democratic Party, but produced a scaled-back $940 billion final package. From that perspective, the war was already lost by the time of President Obama's disastrous press conference on July 22, 2009, or the day before when:
He defended his insistence on getting a bill from lawmakers before they leave next month on their summer recess. Asked why he felt so strongly about the timeline, he replied, "because if you don't set a deadline in this town, nothing happens."
"And the deadline isn't being set by me," he said. "It's being set by the American people."
According to the [Alter] book, when the health care wars were heating up in August of 2009, and centrist Dems were dragging their feet, Rahm mounted an aggressive push to get Obama to shelve ambitious reform.
"For the better part of a week in August Rahm made the case aggressively," the book says.
The result didn't merely mobilize his Republican opposition. For much of the public and most of the press, President Obama got the blame for the hyperpartisanship that predictably ensued and was deemed to have failed in his promise to "change the tone in Washington." As Fortune put it today in article ("A bitterly divided Congress, fanned by the White House") describing the Democratic victory on Wall Street Reform:
Of all the failures at bipartisanship -- the $862 billion stimulus package and the $940 billion healthcare reform chief among them -- the new "Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act" stands as the most egregious.
As Republicans' record-setting use of the filibuster soared, Americans' trust in government has plummeted. Sadly, as Greg Sargent concluded last month, "the GOP strategy of obstruction is paying off for Republicans -- big time. The public is blaming Democrats, not Republicans, for the government dysfunction that has resulted from Republican obstructionist tactics, because Dems are in charge." Or, in the words of Ezra Klein, "somewhere Mitch McConnell is smiling:
"This is the beauty of obstruction, of course: The minority creates outcomes that the majority gets blamed for. The country points its fingers at the majority party for not passing legislation, as it's the majority party's job to pass legislation. The majority party points fingers at one another -- but especially at the White House -- because it's their job to pass legislation."
As John Judis and Kevin Drum among others noted, the trajectory of Barack Obama's approval ratings follows a similar path as Reagan and Clinton before him. But even in the face of steep unemployment that would imperil any presidency, it didn't have to be this bad. The Obama paradox, that is, a growing list of legislative successes yielding declining public support, didn't have to be so, well, paradoxical. Desperate to reach out in vain to his beaten, battered but still irreconcilable Republican foes, President Obama instead helped enable them to rise from the ashes of the 2008 election. Now that he's finally starting to fight to keep the GOP from getting back "behind the wheel," the damage has already been done..
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)