It’s come to this: The president touted for his brainpower, idealism, and global esteem has been reduced to leading captive audiences in chants of “Pass this bill,” a measure that Republicans loathe, Democrats regard warily, and Congress is un-likely to approve even in truncated form.
The Obama presidency has entered the pathetic phase. This occurs when a president acts in a demeaning fashion while trying to rebuild his popularity and political strength. It’s a product of desperation.
There are numerous examples from earlier presidencies. Gerald Ford had his WIN buttons (Whip Inflation Now). George H. W. Bush told New Hampshire voters, “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.” Jimmy Carter boasted endlessly he hadn’t “panicked in the crisis” and insisted he wasn’t contrasting his conduct with rival Teddy Kennedy’s at Chappaquiddick.
For Obama, the pathetic phase began over the summer when the economy weakened further and his job approval rating tanked. He recklessly called for a joint session of Congress to announce his jobs initiative. During his speech, he demanded 18 times, “Pass this bill.”
That was on September 8. Then Obama hit the road. He spoke at two colleges and one high school to crowds whose enthusiasm was expected. Mary Bruce of ABC News kept count of the injunctions to “pass the bill”: 18 at the University of Richmond, 24 at North Carolina State, 18 at Fort Hayes High School in Columbus, Ohio.
He looped back to the White House last week to announce he’d sent the bill to Capitol Hill and uttered “pass the bill”—by then his signature slogan—another dozen times. When he addressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington later in the week, there were a dozen more instructions to “pass the bill.”
What’s wrong with all this? At least the president has shown a burst of energy. This was salve to Democrats and his supporters in the media who have been pleading with the president for months to step up his fight against congressional Republicans.
But the fight is not going well, and for good reason. For one thing, Obama suffers from what Maureen Dowd of the New York Times has identified as the “speech illusion.” This is the notion that he can swoop down from on high, deliver a speech, persuade millions, and move the political needle in favor of his legislation. And, naturally, make himself more popular.
Quite the opposite has happened. The speech wasn’t a bomb, but it was close. Individual parts of his proposal—the payroll tax cut, for instance—drew a positive response in polls. Overall, though, it was a downer. Poll numbers for both the president and his plan sank gradually after the speech. The truth is, Obama is simply not persuasive.
Summoning a joint session was a problem in the first place. Besides the annual State of the Union, joint sessions are traditionally reserved for issues of overriding and urgent national concern, often involving national security. The content of Obama’s speech didn’t qualify. He cheapened the idea of a joint-session address.
Press, politicians, and the public were unenthused. Republicans opted out of replying on national television, figuring Obama wouldn’t sway the nation or cause them any trouble with his criticism. They were right. It was a rare occasion when Dowd and Republicans agreed.
Obama’s conceit is that he stands high above the crass politics of Congress and represents the needs of the entire country, while Congress—he means Republicans—pursues narrow party interests. Does anyone, including those in the White House, believe this? I don’t think so.
One reason is the president has protested too much. “It’s the members of Congress who put party before country because they believe the only way to resolve our differences is to wait 14 months till the next election,” he told the Hispanic group. “I’ve got news for them. The American people don’t have the luxury of waiting 14 months.” And so on.
The suspicion has been that Obama has attempted to use the joint session and the “jobs bill” to further his chances of reelection. He can’t run on his record with unemployment so high and the fiscal mess worsening. He needs a villain.
By themselves, his speeches aren’t confirmation he’s following the so-called Truman strategy. In 1948, an unpopular President Truman called a phony joint session and offered up legislation he knew Republicans would block. Then he campaigned against them as the “do-nothing Congress.” And won.
In 2012, Obama’s villain would be congressional Republicans. He’d have to argue the economy would be booming if only they’d approved his bill. Job growth would be soaring. America would be back on track, not falling behind China with its high-speed trains and flashy airports or South Korea with its better schools.
But suspicion became fact when the president disclosed he’d pay for his $447 billion bill entirely with tax increases. He knew Republicans would never go along. If they did, he knew it would split their party bitterly. He knew he’d have a “do-nothing Congress” of his very own.
Obama isn’t as clever as he thinks. A back-to-the-future strategy from 63 years ago isn’t likely to work. Politics has changed, and the president’s devices and desires are transparent. Truman himself couldn’t pull off the strategy today.
But Obama’s machinations aren’t the clearest evidence of his desperation. His unpresidential conduct is. In 2008, he led crowds in chanting, “Yes, we can.” He was a candidate then, and it demonstrated the loftiness of his appeal and the passion of his partisans.
Now he’s president. We can have fast railroads like China’s, he said in Columbus. “So let’s tell Congress, pass this bill right away.” The crowd shouted back. “Pass this bill! Pass this bill! Pass this bill!”
Now get ready for the “Pass this bill” buttons.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.