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Pedal to the Metal

Why President Obama needs to move fast.

12:00 AM, Mar 12, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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"You've got to give it all you can, that first year," the president told a senior advisor. "Doesn't matter what kind of majority you come in with. You've got just one year when they treat you right." President Obama, however, did not utter these words of wisdom to Rahm Emanuel or David Axelrod last month. Lyndon Johnson said them to his aide Harry McPherson nearly a half-century ago.

Fleeting power and fickle public opinion are enduring challenges for presidents. This reality contributes to the "strike while the iron is hot" mentality we witness with most new presidents dealing with Congress--particularly those with large, friendly majorities on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Lyndon Johnson understood this; and so does Barack Obama.

The new president's political capital is slowly evaporating. And if the White House accepts this view--and I believe it does--it explains a lot about their early tactics. It's not hard to miss the administration's bold ambition in the recently enacted stimulus/spending initiatives as well as the president's budget blueprint. Tom Bevan called it "Obama's need for speed," writing in Real Clear Politics last week. Bevan explored what factors "may help explain why he appears to be in such a rush to push through an expansive, transformational agenda" and wondered if a more sober, deliberative method--like the one John F. Kennedy took--might be a better approach.

Former Clinton aide and ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos raised similar questions this past weekend. "Some in Washington wonder if he is taking on too much too fast." His blog entry carries the provocative title: "Obama's Agenda: Circuit Overload?"

President Obama's need to find the right balance between accommodating the public's desire for "change" while not "overloading the circuits" poses one of the trickiest tactical challenges facing the new White House.

I may not agree with the substance of Obama's policies. And even successfully enacting them may not win public plaudits in the end. But his chances for notching "accomplishments" are better this year than next.

An interesting trend in public mood inevitably seems to affect every president in much the same way. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill political scientist James Stimson suggests political moods in America ebb and flow like ocean tides. As soon as a new president gets elected, the public mood gradually begins to shift against him.

Using polling data, Stimson estimates the American political mood between 1952 and 2004. He then analyzes changes in the mood over that half-century. "One pattern emerges fairly strongly," Stimson writes. "Preferences 'zig' upward (toward liberalism) when Republicans control the White House and 'zag' downward when Democrats are in charge." In other words, "mood becomes more conservative under liberal governments, more liberal under conservative regimes," Stimson asserts.

These trends give meaning to Obama's full-throttle approach--his opponents are probably gaining ground right now. A couple factors account for Stimson's findings. First, when voters want "change," like last November, they install a new president. They project that desire for something different on candidates and parties. Yet when campaigning turns to governing, vague promises of "change" become very specific. Real policies replace projections, producing outcomes not everyone likes. "A lot of people I know voted for Obama because they wanted 'change,'" a suburban voter told me. "But now that they hear more details, it's not the change they had in mind." Those attitudes will no doubt grow as the White House continues to add specifics to its legislative agenda.

Second, time in general just takes its toll on presidential popularity. Looking at graphs of presidential approval ratings for every president back to Eisenhower, with a few exceptions (George W. Bush following 9/11 is one), most presidents' approval declines as their terms progress.

Part of this has to do with the mobilization of the "out-party," according to James Gimpel, political science professor at the University of Maryland. "Usually after a loss, the out-party goes back to work, gets on offense, and eventually rebuilds a seriously threatening movement," Gimpel told me this week.