July 15, 2010
By: John F. Harris
The imminent passage of financial reform, just a couple months after the passage of comprehensive health care, should decisively end the narrative that President Obama represents a Jimmy Carter-style case of naïve hope crushed by the inability to master Washington.
Yet the mystery remains: Having moved swiftly toward achieving the very policy objectives he promised voters as a candidate, Obama is still widely perceived as flirting with a failed presidency.
Eric Alterman, in a column that drew wide notice, wrote in The Nation that most liberals think the president is a “big disappointment.” House Democrats are in near-insurrection after White House press secretary Robert Gibbs stated the obvious — that the party has a chance of losing the House under Obama’s watch. And independent voters have turned decisively against the man they helped elect 21 months ago — a trend unlikely to be reversed before November.
This is an odd reversal of expectations. When he came into office, the assumption even among some Democrats was that he was a dazzling politician and communicator who might prove too unseasoned at governance to win substantive achievements.
The reality is the opposite. You can argue over whether Obama’s achievements are good or bad on the merits. But especially after Thursday’s vote you can’t argue that Obama is not getting things done. To the contrary, he has, as promised, covered the uninsured, tightened regulations, started to wind down the war in Iraq and shifted focus and resources to Afghanistan, injected more competition into the education system and edged closer to a big energy bill.
The problem is that he and his West Wing turn out to be not especially good at politics, or communications — in other words, largely ineffective at the very things on which their campaign reputation was built. And the promises he made in two years of campaigning turn out to be much less appealing as actual policies.
“I tell you, it’s very frustrating that it’s not breaking through, when you look at these things and their scale,” said a top Obama adviser, who spoke on background to offer a candid take on the state of play. “Can you imagine if Bill Clinton had achieved even one of these? Part of it is because we are divided, even on the left…And part of it is the culture of immediate gratification.”
But there are many other reasons for Obama’s woes. Based on interviews with officials in the administration and on Capitol Hill, and with Democratic operatives around town, here are a half-dozen reasons why Obama is perceived as failing to win over the public, even though by most conventional measures he is clearly succeeding:
The flight of independents
Obama sees himself as a different kind of Democrat, one who transcends ideology but is basically a centrist. By some measures, his self-image fits. His war and anti-terrorism policies are remarkably similar to those advocated by the man he blames for most the country’s problems: George W. Bush. He’s butting heads with the teachers unions by enticing states to quit rewarding teachers on tenure instead of merit. On immigration, he stresses border security instead of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
But on the issues voters care most about — the economy, jobs and spending — Obama has shown himself to be a big-government liberal. This reality is killing him with independent-minded voters — a trend that started one year ago and has gotten much worse of late. On the eve of his inaugural address, nearly six in 10 independents approved of his job performance. By late July of 2009 — right around the time Obama was talking up health care and pressuring Democrats to vote on cap-and-trade legislation — independents started to take flight.
Many never returned. For the first time in his presidency, Obama’s approval among independents dropped below 40 percent in the past two weeks, according to the widely respected Gallup surveys.
A recent poll by Democrat Stan Greenberg’s Democracy Corps found that 57 percent of likely voters regard Obama as “too liberal.”
“The key thing here is the economy and the unemployment rate hangs over everything,” another top White House official told us. “Until that gets better, for most people, they will be frustrated.”
The ideology conundrum
Even as Obama pays the price for liberal positions, he doesn’t manage to reap what should be the rewards. That’s because he has never adequately reckoned with the divisions in his own party and taken a clear stand of his own. During the campaign, he avoided the whole question of whether he is centrist “new Democrat” or a “traditional liberal” by insisting the debate was irrelevant, and uniting the party around Bush hatred and the power of his own biography.
But on a score of questions — how long to pursue war in Afghanistan, how much to emphasize deficit reduction versus stimulus, whether to court the business community or condemn it — the Democrats’ internal debate is relevant. By failing to clarify and speak often about his larger philosophy, in the way that Bill Clinton often did, and instead responding tactically to circumstances on Capitol Hill or in any day’s news cycle, Obama pays a price.
What is Obamaism? Conservatives think he stands for backdoor socialism. Liberals think he is a sell-out. Independents think he is a president with no clear compass who is breaking the bank with excessive spending.
Every move Obama makes, whether he is accommodating the center or the left, is interpreted through the prism of process and derided as reactive and expedient.
The tactical improvisation leaves even many Obama supporters saying they “don’t know what he really stands for” — as though there could somehow be a mystery as to where he stands after nearly a trillion dollars in stimulus spending and two landmark pieces of legislation passed within 18 months.
The likability factor
Many Democrats on the Hill don’t much like Obama, or at least his circle of advisers. They think the White House makes them take tough votes, but doesn’t care that much about the problems those votes leave politicians facing in tough races in 2010. Numerous Democrats have complained privately that Obama only cares about Obama — a view reinforced by Gibbs’s public admission that Democrats could lose the House.
It was no coincidence that Majority Leader Harry Reid this week criticized Obama for not being tough enough in some legislative showdowns — and that Democrats leaked word that Nancy Pelosi ripped into a top White House official about the Gibbs comments.
In what would surprise media critics outside Washington, many reporters don’t much like Obama or his gang either. They accurately perceive the contempt with which they are held by his White House, an attitude that undoubtedly flows from the top. Insults and blustery non-responses, f-bombs flying, are common in how West Wing aides speak to reporters.
In a transactional city like Washington, personal relations usually only matter at the margins. But in a poor political climate those margins can be important, and there’s no mistaking that across the capital there are many people who seem to be enjoying the president’s travails, and cheering whenever he takes a cream pie to the face.
As individuals, most of the people who work in this West Wing are plainly decent and hard-working folks, who say the modern media echo chamber leaves them no choice but to be aggressive.
But collectively Obama has recruited a team with an uncommonly brash personality.
His West Wing is unsteady
A lot of attention was paid to how Obama surrounded himself with powerful and skilled personalities in his Cabinet: Hillary Clinton at State and Robert Gates at the Pentagon sit atop that list.
But Democrats privately complain that the real power center — the West Wing staff — isn’t nearly as impressive. A common gripe on the Hill and on the lobbying corridor is that the communications team isn’t great at communicating, the speech-writing team isn’t great at speech writing (exemplified by Obama’s flaccid Oval Office speech last month on the BP spill and energy policy) and the political team often botches the politics.
The criticism is probably unfair on several fronts. It would be impossible for the best of communicators to offer clarity and convincing words when the country is locked in two wars, wrestling with a once-in-a-lifetime oil spill and mired in high unemployment. But the White House didn’t help its cause by wrongly predicting a record-sized stimulus plan would hold unemployment below 8 percent and then waffling on its commitment to deficit reduction while signing into law massive expansions of the federal government. As for the big speeches, Obama is often the main author.
The political team is rightly knocked for hamhandedness. The White House failed to clear the Senate primary field in Arkansas, Colorado and Pennsylvania — even after dangling government jobs to help its preferred candidate in two of them. And it couldn’t land the candidate it wanted to run for Obama’s old seat. But, then again, it is operating in a political environment in which the establishment has very little control in many of the biggest races.
Obama is swimming up Niagara until joblessness improves. But, even while Obama doesn’t directly control the economy, he has not been a disciplined or effective communicator about the state of the economy and his prescriptions for it. People will tolerate a weak economy if they feel there is an upward trajectory. But Obama has not managed to instill that confidence. “The economy is off the charts on what people care about — nothing is a close second,” one of the advisers said.
The unemployment rate is expected to remain near 9.5 percent through the election, which is a big reason that some White House officials are even more pessimistic than Gibbs about the chances of keeping control of the House.
It doesn’t matter that Republicans such as Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) say Obama’s policies helped avert a worse economic calamity than most Americans will ever realize — or that the federal government is turning a profit on some of the investments it made in bailing out companies in 2009. No politician can escape the gravitational pull of bad employment numbers and economic figures in real-time.
The liberal echo chamber
Polls show most self-described liberals still strongly support Obama. But an elite group of commentators on the left — many of whom are unhappy with him and are rewarded with more attention by being critical of a fellow Democrat — has a disproportionate influence on perceptions.
The liberal blogosphere grew in response to Bush. But it is still a movement marked by immaturity and impetuousness — unaccustomed to its own side holding power and the responsibilities and choices that come with that.
So many liberals seem shocked and dismayed that Obama is governing as a self-protective politician first and a liberal second, even though that is also how he campaigned. The liberal blogs cheer the fact that Stan McChrystal’s scalp has been replaced with David Petraeus’s, even though both men are equally hawkish on Afghanistan, but barely clapped for the passage of health care. They treat the firing of a blogger from the Washington Post as an event of historic significance, while largely averting their gaze from the fact that major losses for Democrats in the fall elections would virtually kill hopes for progressive legislation over the next couple years.
In private conversations, White House officials are contemptuous of what they see as liberal lamentations unhinged from historical context or contemporary political realities.
The BP cam
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) beat his chest to force BP to make public the footage of gushing oil from an underwater camera. Democrats celebrated that as a victory for public accountability. But it was actually a painful defeat for Obama. The camera produced an indelible image played 24-7 on cable that highlighted how ineffectual Obama was for two months in stopping this catastrophe.
Obama is not responsible for the leak, and realistically there was little he could do to expedite the repair. But for an irritable public the Gulf coast debacle was a reminder — horribly timed from Obama’s perspective — that big business and big government are often a problem, not a solution.