Young President in a Hurry
Why Obama wants to move fast.
Mar 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 26 • By FRED BARNES
President Obama must be irked. The media and other Obama allies like Warren Buffett are on his case for the first time, insisting he's in too big a hurry to enact his entire domestic agenda. Obama should slow down, they say. He should prioritize. He should focus on reviving the economy and nothing else, and leave other issues--health care, energy, education--for later. The president has spurned this advice.
Obama is right. His agenda is grandiose, but his strategy for achieving it makes sense. Since he has a fair chance of getting nearly everything he wants, why not go for it now? The president and his aides believe any new administration in similar circumstances would do the same. Right again. Proceeding prudently, taking up issues one at a time, would reduce the odds of success. For a new president, later is harder.
The White House strategy has dictated the Republican strategy: slow-walk the process. No one understands this better than Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. He's joined the chorus urging Obama to pull back. There's "ample time" later, he said last week, to deal with issues "that have no relation whatsoever" to rejuvenating the economy.
The president, contrary to his reputation as the smartest guy in town, doesn't seem to realize how important his own strategy really is. He acts as though he's not subject to the normal rules of politics and thus, for him, success is inevitable. It's not. The rules do apply and have, in fact, begun to affect him adversely. He needs to make haste.
Obama has two great political assets: his popularity and the large Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. The more popular a president and the bigger his party's majorities, the better his prospects for winning approval of his agenda. Seems obvious, doesn't it? The best example: Lyndon Johnson in 1965, when his Great Society programs became the law of the land. (They still are.)
Like earlier presidents, Obama is slipping in popularity, as measured by job approval, as his first year progresses. At 63 percent approval, he's roughly where George W. Bush was at this point in his presidency in 2001, but behind JFK, Eisenhower, Carter, LBJ, and Nixon. Pollster Scott Rasmussen has noted a sharp rise in those who "strongly disapprove" of Obama's performance and a dip in those who "strongly approve."
Until the economy shows signs of recovery, Obama's popularity is likely to decline further. And Larry Summers, Obama's top economic adviser, says "no one knows just when" a rebound will begin. Many economists, for what it's worth, don't expect signs of recovery until next year.
That's probably too late to spare Democrats from losing a number of House seats and maybe even several Senate seats in the 2010 midterm elections. Assuming the economy remains stagnant, or worsens, and Obama loses popularity, Democrats are bound to grow queasy about facing the voters. Many of them won't look kindly on the president's agenda.
So it's small wonder that House speaker Nancy Pelosi is not only a strong advocate of the get-everything-now strategy, she would enlarge the agenda. Rather than wait until 2011 for the Bush tax cuts to expire, Pelosi recommended raising tax rates for the upper middle class and wealthy now.
She lost that argument, but she usually gets her way. Pelosi instructed Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid last week to make sure the Senate passed an "omnibus" spending bill identical to the House's version. Reid complied, allowing the measure to get Obama's signature quickly. Earlier, after she had rebuffed Republican efforts to compromise on the economic "stimulus" package, Obama explained to a frustrated Republican that Pelosi just didn't have time for bipartisanship.
There are two other reasons--ones Obama may not be aware of--why he should be in a hurry. He doesn't have a mandate or anything close to it. True, he brought up the liberal initiatives now encased in his budget during the campaign last year. But they were little more than talking points, not his core message of change, unity, and uprooting the way Washington does business.
The public reaction to Obama's agenda has been tepid. Only a bit more than one-third of Americans believe the stimulus will boost the economy. His $3.6 trillion budget is viewed more unfavorably (46 percent) than favorably (41 percent) in a Rasmussen survey. And the threat of global warming, a major element of Obama's rationale for restricting carbon emissions, is increasingly seen as exaggerated.
The other reason for moving swiftly is ideological. Obama is trying to impose extremely liberal policies on an electorate that identifies itself--78 percent in the Election Day exit poll last November--as either conservative or moderate. Liberals argue the public has been radicalized by the economic slump. Maybe some folks have, but it's hardly a mass phenomenon.
So Obama needs to push his agenda through Congress before the public discovers what he's up to. Time is not on his side. Moderate Democrats aren't a tough breed, but they've begun to question many of Obama's policies. They don't strike fear in Pelosi's heart. But if their ranks swell, they could cause trouble for her, Reid, and especially Obama.
Republicans won't want to hear this, but the model for Obama's strategy is Ronald Reagan. When Reagan took office, he faced a deteriorating economy, and his popularity fell rapidly. Then 10 weeks into his presidency, he was wounded in an assassination attempt. His popularity increased, helping him to gain approval of his basic agenda of spending and tax cuts and a budget that funded a significant military buildup.
By September of his first year, Reagan's approval rating had fallen 15 points from its high, as unemployment soared. It's not farfetched to suspect Obama might also suffer a serious fall in popularity. All the more reason for Obama to get everything he can as soon as he can. And reason enough for Republicans to bog him down.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.