Commentators on the political Right have observed the decline of President Barack Obama’s popularity with equal parts Schadenfreude and I-told-you-so smirking. Yet most of the commentary about Obama’s decline seems to focus on the One Big Answer so beloved by pundits who substitute pith for prudence. This simplistic analysis will almost surely deprive conservatives of a properly nuanced understanding that might allow for a positive change in the country’s direction.
A few things are factually not in dispute. First, Obama entered office with a great swelling of popular enthusiasm. Second, Obama used a fair amount of political capital to push an economic stimulus bill. Third, the public eventually soured on the stimulus amid reports of executive bonuses and the administration’s close involvement with the restructurings in the domestic auto industry. Fourth, Obama’s poll numbers have fallen considerably and now hover around the 50-percent mark, leaving him with one of the most precipitous drops in presidential public approval in more than a half-century.
The question, though, is — what does it all mean?
Despite the desire among many national analysts to pin down the economy or healthcare as the main reason behind Obama’s slump, the reality is probably much more complex. Consider the following points:
- Post-election triumphalism. Obama won a healthy majority of the public vote, in a fair election honestly contested between honest candidates. The conventional wisdom says the election was seen as a vote for “hope and change” and for the vaguely defined policy program that Obama was advocating. But it’s at least as likely that many Obama voters were merely independents and moderates who were dismayed by the secretive incompetence of the final Bush years and saw no need to transition from one tired warhorse to another. The true measure of pro-Obama (versus anti-Bush) sentiment is hard to gauge; however, it’s possible that the hard Left viewed the eletction results as a ringing endorsement of their fondest dreams, while the more typical Obama voter preferred the more moderate and centrist tone that Obama frequently struck on the campaign trail. So when the new administration brought in its talents — many from the hard Left — there was a sense of inevitability that perhaps facilitated a governmental over-reach to some degree, on a wide variety of social and economic topics. This lunge to the Left did not necessarily sit well with Obama’s centrist voters, and the massive defection of independents over the summer seems to bear this out.
- Bailout Mania. It’s easy to forget that the bailout and TARP business started under Bush. However, the Obama/Geithner team took it to a whole new level with the firing of GM’s Waggoner and getting involved in the minutiae of executive compensation. A fair case can be made about the pros and the cons of the administration’s policies relative to the emergency fixing that may (or may not) have been required to stabilize the banking and domestic automotive industries, but regardless, the administration seemed wholly unapologetic about flexing its muscle within the private sector. Despite the misgivings that Americans may have about the integrity of business leaders, the public also seems to fear government encroachment into boardrooms and C-suites.
- Pushing the Reset Button. The administration made a big deal about “pushing the reset button” with the world. This is fine and dandy, except that many Americans — particularly centrists — might prefer to see a change of policy that did not seem to revel in publicly critiquing our past policy positions. Granted that many Americans may not have been fully satisfied with, say, the unilateralism of the first Bush term, it just feels unseemly that the Obama team should make a point of saying “that’s not us.” Change the policy, or don’t, but don’t preen at the expense of your predecessor — many sober-minded Americans likely agree that repudiating our past policy positions on a whim, for largely ideological reasons, substantially decreases America’s long-term credibility in the world.
- Outsourcing Leadership to Congress. On issues including cap-and-trade and health reform, the White House has consistently outsourced the leadership and the policy development of the administration’s signature programs to Capitol Hill. In a purely academic sense, this is astute — let the legislative leaders craft a bill that can actually make it through the legislature. But in a retail-politics sense, it signifies a lack of committed leadership from the executive, especially when it’s well-established that the Congress is hopelessly mired in partisan grandstanding. The end result is a series of flawed bills marked up by Left partisans, which cause battle after battle in the marble halls of Congress. Republicans have never been so unified, which is a remarkable state of affairs in itself; had Obama led with more vigor, it’s quite likely that the Republicans would continue to ferment in utter disarray from their minority positions.
- Overt Partisanship. Whether it was Rahm Emmanuel vowing to not let a crisis go untapped, or the Van Jones affair, or the intemperate remarks in a USA Today op-ed from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, or the way the Department of Justice is going after CIA operatives regarding the interrogation of detained terrorist suspects, or the Skip Gates situation, or the attacks on Rush Limbaugh, there is a looming sense that the administration’s political operation is Nixonian in scope and timbre. For a leader who promised to be a post-partisan healer, the prospect of President Obama as a reflexive ideologue may be tough for his moderate supporters to swallow.
Obama has slid far, and fast. Although he has had a fair number of successes under his belt (including the Cairo speech), the stimulus bill and then cap-and-trade and now health reform has left his administration plummeting in the polls.
It’s too tempting to point to one master thesis for this. Some more astute commentators talk about the administration’s over-reach this year, after improperly interpreting the 2008 election results as an unambiguous mandate for unfettered Left-wing change. There may be some over-reach at play; yet all first-term presidents are guilty of this.
Part of the issue may rest in a collapse of expectations. A broad swathe of the electorate was willing to suspend its disbelief last November and elect a young and inexperienced senator who spoke in pseudo-messianic terms about “hope and change” but who often came up short on policy specifics. After eight years of Bush, and eight years of Clinton, people were hungry for a visionary leader who seemed to be above the fray, who would make sure that it remained morning in America.
The problem, though, is that presidents remain above the fray at the cost of their effectiveness. At some point, the chief executive needs to roll up his sleeves and do something. So Obama acted — on the stimulus, on cap-and-trade, on federal funding of abortions and stem-cell research, on Gitmo, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It turns out, the people haven’t been much amused by what he has done. Some of it may rest in the sad recognition that the hoped-for competence of the Obama team never really materialized — a bumbling Biden, a garrolous Gibbs, a parade of would-be Cabinet secretaries who fell to one tax problem after another. Some of it is also probably a function of ideology; Obama has acted like his Senate voting record, preferring a liberal position and eschewing bipartisanship when he doesn’t need bipartisan support.
Obama’s fall, however, is hardly irreversible. And therein lies the challenge for Republicans.
The GOP has done some outsourcing of its own. Criticism of the president has come less from the loyal Congressional opposition and more from the waves of conservative talk radio, which while convenient, smacks of insincereity. Republicans, although they have answers to Democratic plans on health care, seem more pro forma than genuinely engaged — and they certainly aren’t pushing their alternatives very openly.
If the Republicans wish to capitalize on Obama’s stumbling, then they need to do a few things, and do them in a hurry:
- Get serious about presenting comprehensive, conservative (or center-right) positions to the Obama agenda. Give voters a choice, not a nyet.
- Get serious about earmarks. The GOP’s bread-and-butter has historically been “fiscal prudence” — an inheritance squandered during the free-spending days of the Bush years. Cut the size of government, and lower the ballooning deficit, and then be public about it. It’s not too late to return to the days of low taxes, low spending, less regulation.
- Listen more to the grassroots and less to K Street.
- Challenge the worldview animating the Obama team. Don’t concede that industry executives are all crooked, for example.
- Rally behind a common message. Gingrich’s “Contract with America” was successful becuase it presented a legislative platform that was a genuine alternative to what Clinton advocated after the implosion of HillaryCare. Find commonality under the big tent, focus a clear agenda, and fight for it. Put the Democrats on defense.
It’s been a long summer for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. The governing team has lost a lot of public confidence, but this trend is hardly irreversible. The Republicans have potential — but will they seize the moment?