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Neither Roosevelt nor Reagan

How Obama blew his opportunity.

Aug 2, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 43 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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When he signed the health care reform bill earlier this year, Barack Obama gave progressives the prize they had aimed at for seven-plus decades, an event they compared to the passage of civil rights and of Social Security. At the same time, he destroyed the best chance the Democrats had for enduring center-left governance since the mid 20th-century, shattered the coalition that brought him to power, and dealt his party and faction a political setback from which they may not recover for years. 

Neither Roosevelt nor Reagan

Only a year ago, to hear the press tell it, Obama was that rare bird, a transformational figure, the new FDR or the left’s Ronald Reagan. He was no mere presider—like the Bushes or Clinton—but a deliverer of major-league change. The alignments and mores of the past 30 years had been shattered; all that remained was to pick up the pieces and fashion them into a whole new mosaic that would run things for decades. Few doubted that this would be done.

Obama’s chance for his new coalition came with the crash of September 2008, which dumped a windfall of independents, swing-voters, and softer Republicans into his and the Democrats’ laps. While Republicans brawled for two weeks over the TARP financial bailout, and destroyed any sense they were fit to hold power, Obama stayed calm, projecting an unflappability that many mistook for assurance and competence. The economic crisis produced a political bonanza—the biggest presidential win for his party since its historic blowout in 1964 and a flood of congressional Democrats. The victory was wide, deep, and truly seemed national: Obama won more white males than Al Gore or John Kerry, he won back many straying conservative Democrats, he won independents by a 52-44 percent margin, and he won the “investor class” (people with incomes of $75,000 or over, and whose home values and stock holdings had been very hard hit) in the suburbs of cities in swing states, who tipped the red states of Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina into his column. 

For Obama, this windfall was an opportunity, but also a challenge, whose nature he never quite grasped. The opportunity was the chance to make his the national governing party; the challenge was that his voters weren’t all that alike. All wanted change, but of different descriptions. The academic and metro-America liberals wanted a sharp departure from the Reagan-Bush policies. The swing voters sought relief from the partisan rows of the Clinton-Bush era. The first group wanted more partisanship, the second much less; the first was drawn by the progressive and left-wing agenda, the second by the small-c “conservative” temperament; the first wanted spending to cure the recession, the second thought the crash had been caused by over-extension, and moved in the direction of caution and thrift. The crash didn’t convert the independents to the views of the liberal base, but it did give Obama a chance to address them, to make his case for a more communitarian approach, to claim that government could be a solution, if not to all problems, then to some. The country was due for a modest tilt to the left after years of conservative dominance, and the crash made a case for a change of direction. Aligning the base with the swing voters would have brought realignment. This never was tried.

Believing a crisis should never be wasted, Obama soon hit the ground spending, with a $787 billion stimulus program and the bailout or buyout of General Motors, coming on top of the TARP program earlier. This was his much touted Big Bang theory of statecraft—the belief that rapid-fire success would create trust in government. But Obama had misread the mood of many of his own voters, and the “trust” and “success” parts would fail to take hold. Public resistance had already emerged in the form of the anti-big-government rallies that came to be known as the Tea Party movement, but the administration dismissed them as fringe or mob actions, and pressed on to health care—dear to the heart of his base, not to the larger public​—which Obama had pegged as the core of his program, and the signature issue on which his success or his failure would turn. He turned the plan over to the Democratic leadership in Congress, which crafted a plan to make liberals happy. And this was his second mistake.

The coalition that elected Obama had always been split between two different elements—those who thought he was like Edmund Burke, and those who hoped he was like Robespierre; those moved by the progressive big ideas and those drawn by the pragmatic persona; those galvanized by the left-wing agenda and those who trusted in the “first-class temperament” extolled by Christopher Buckley and others to keep the agenda from going too far. It was at this point that the second group began having vapors, as the details of the plan(s) trickled out. To the extent that they wanted a health plan at all, moderates and swing voters wanted cost control, while Obamacare called for massive expansion of coverage; they wanted flexibility and additional choices, while Obama-care mandated fixed and elaborate levels of coverage; they were unnerved by the idea of adding more debt and taxes in the middle of what was still a recession, fears that the left did not share. 

When the administration said its health plan would do more for less money no one believed them, and resistance grew. Support for the idea of reform started to slip steadily as the details were uncovered, with majorities believing the plan would erode the quality of medical services while increasing the cost. The more the administration explained it, the more the swing voters peeled off. “The crucial movement came between April and June, when the president’s approval among independents fell by 15 percentage points, and the percentage of independents who regarded him as liberal or very liberal rose by 18,” the New York Times’s David Brooks noted.

This was linked specifically to Obama’s handling of health care, approval of which slipped from 57 percent to 49 percent in a fairly short period while disapproval rose from 29 percent to 44 percent. Disapproval would keep steadily rising, and the fact that independents, who had flocked to Obama in the fall of 2008, saw the term “liberal” as not user-friendly suggested they had gone with the temperament, not the agenda, and were starting to think they’d been had. Polls taken at the end of July and in early August 2009 found majorities had moved into firm opposition, which Obama’s appeals had done nothing to stop. “The Obama team banked on the president’s overwhelming personal popularity and aura of calm to make extreme and radical measures seem perfectly reasonable,” wrote Commentary’s Jennifer Rubin. That assumption was “proving to not be the case.”

When Democrats went home on recess in August, they were confronted at town halls by angry constituents, making members who months before thought they possessed an enduring majority suddenly fear for their seats. Heretofore depressed and divided, Republicans started to stir and to unify, seeing the polls and the protests as giving them traction and the health care bill in itself as a source of renewal, a target to aim at, and something all factions could hate. Elections coming up in the fall and the winter gained new importance: Democrats expected an easy win in the special election to fill the Senate seat of Ted Kennedy, but the two biggest tests—the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey, two critical states that had given big wins to Obama—began to take shape as referenda on health care, and on Obama’s transformative theories of governance. 

That this verdict would be in the negative began to emerge in October, when the Washington Post described the president for the first time as being a drag on his party, perhaps the reason that centrist Democrats in both houses had started to balk at his signature measure, and were insisting on major bribes before pledging their votes. On November 3, independents lowered the boom, electing Republican governors in both Virginia and New Jersey in a massive revolt of swing voters. When the House passed the bill later that week, it was by only five votes, with one-fifth of Democrats defecting. On Christmas Eve, Democrats pushed their health bill through the Senate on a series of deals designed to buy off recalcitrant members in states that had been Republican in recent elections: $300 million to Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, millions more to Bill Nelson in Florida; millions in exemptions from Medicaid to Nebraska’s Ben Nelson (“The Stench of Victory,” as the Washington Post put it). It was just after this that Republican Scott Brown, pledging to be “the 41st vote against health care,” began to gain ground. On January 19 Brown won by 5 points, overcoming a 30-point lead once held by his rival, in a state that had gone by 26 points to Obama in 2008. Independents made up more than half of the vote in Massachusetts and in 2008 had gone nearly two-to-one for Obama; they now broke for Brown by a similar margin. A coalition for Obama of independents and Democrats had become a coalition against him of independents and Republicans. He built coalitions, but for the opposition party. And it had taken him only one year.

When Virginia’s Bob McDonnell and New Jersey’s Chris Christie won in November, Democrats had begun to get nervous; concern grew in December when Ben Nelson dropped 20 points, billions in pork for his state notwithstanding; and when Scott Brown pulled off his remarkable upset a genuine panic set in. “We’re screwed,” a Massachusetts congressman said to his caucus. Anxious moderates implored their leaders for caution. Another House Democrat said Harry Reid was a “loser,” and that the party was “f—ed” if it didn’t come to its senses and quit. Hearts sank when it became evident that the president and the leadership, unable to give up on the dream of a lifetime, were determined to push the health care bill through. 

The moderates who came from swing districts were not happy when they were told by the White House, their leaders, and the liberal blogging community that it would be their honor and duty to lay down their political lives for the president, who made it clear that a failure to pass Obamacare would be a career-ending measure—for him. Frantic pleas from endangered Blue Dogs and centrists brought forth no balm from The One. “Obama’s reply, in a nutshell: Sorry, Blanche,” Charles Lane of the Washington Post summarized a session in which Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas “practically begged the president to repudiate ‘extreme’ liberals—a clear reference to the Nancy Pelosi-led House—and tack to the center.” Lane was struck by “how easily he appeared to write off Lincoln politically, implying that her defeat was not only a foregone conclusion, but also an acceptable price to pay.” (To Arkansas representative Marion Berry, who warned of a replay of the 1994 wipeout of congressional Democrats, Obama replied, “You’ve got me,” ignoring the fact that his magic presence did nothing to help the opponents of McDonnell, Christie, or Brown to survive.) Nobody wanted to be the 216th vote against the bill, and face the wrath of the president and the congressional leadership, and no one wanted to be the 216th vote for it, and face the wrath of the voters back home. A Democrat who preferred to be nameless told the Los Angeles Times, You almost couldn’t design a vise more damaging to moderate Democrats—or that puts our majority more at risk.”

On March 21 the vise closed on the Democrats, as they squeezed out a win for Obamacare by seven votes. Senator Evan Bayh had announced his resignation in February; Michigan’s Bart Stupak, who had voted yes under pressure, announced his in early April—opening up seats likely to go to Republicans. More retirements would follow. Much effort had gone in 2006 and 2008 into recruiting candidates who could run and win in red and swing states and districts in the endeavor to build a broad and deep base for the party. Those were precisely the members undermined by Obama’s handiwork. The labor of years in trying to grow and establish a national party was gone.

What happened? Obama may have begun believing there was a coalition in place for the changes he wanted, but, for at least six different reasons, he and his friends were wrong. First, bad as it was, 2009 was no 1933, a perilous time when the country was not only strapped, but teetering on the raw edge of a social implosion. Second, Obama was no FDR, a political master who with one major exception—his court-packing plan after his 1936 landslide—had near-perfect pitch for what the country could take at each given moment, and seldom moved past these parameters. Third, when FDR became president, the crisis had already gone on for three years with no improvement; Obama’s crisis had gone on for just four months, and the first steps to check it had already been taken. Fourth, this crash had been caused largely by leverage and debate, which made people averse to more borrowing and spending. Fifth, when FDR came on the scene, the country arguably was undergoverned, with few regulations, and no safety nets. In 2009, this was hardly the case. Sixth and last, FDR and his voters hadn’t lived through a sorry decade like the 1970s, which had shown that while no regulation and no safety nets did not work well, too much of both didn’t work either. If trust in markets was no longer unbounded, neither was trust in the state. Those 60-plus years of experience made a very big difference. The era of big government being over was a whole lot more durable than Obama had thought.

Had Obama really been FDR, this would not have surprised him, as transformative leaders are always in touch with their times. They also understand the basic rules of politics, which involve uniting your side while dividing the enemy, and bringing part of the enemy into your camp. They know that survival depends on keeping your base and swing voters in harness together, or so little dissatisfied that neither feels tempted or driven to leave. They know keeping independents on their side is the highest priority, as the votes of this bloc are on loan, not a given; and that while members of your base may stay home and sulk if you make them unhappy, independents will get out and vote for the opposite party, and you will lose two votes, and not one. 

If a transformative leader had tried for health care—and FDR did not go for Social Security until his third year in office—he would have built the bill out from the center, in a way that held on to the unhappy left, appealed to the center, and became a wedge issue that split Republicans. As it was, Obama presented a bill drawn up by the left that became a wedge issue inside his own party, pitted the progressives against the Blue Dogs and centrists, set the moderates up for electoral slaughter, and forced several out in despair and exhaustion. His party is much weaker now than when he launched his agenda. And Republicans and the conservative movement have a whole new lease on life. 

Transformative leaders, it goes without saying, seldom do things in this way. FDR passed Social Security in 1935 by a 372-33 vote margin in the House and 77-6 in the Senate; Reagan passed his tax cuts in 1981 by votes of 323-107 in the House, and 89-11 in the Senate. They not only passed their most ambitious bills, they built firm coalitions around and beneath them: Roosevelt aligned southern Bourbons with crypto-Communists, the segregationists with the civil rights movement, and dust bowl farmers with the children of ethnic urban immigrants. Reagan aligned fiscal conservatives with social conservatives and both with defense hawks who had been thrown out by the Democrats, aligned the country club Republicans with the movement conservatives, and pried the Reagan Democrats away from the party of Roosevelt. Obama came in with a coalition in embryo, handed to him by events not of his making, and threw it away in record time. 

Reagan and Roosevelt changed the country’s laws and its politics, moving them both in one common direction. But while Obama is moving the law to the left, those laws are moving the politics hard in the other direction. Since Obama became president, everything that he wants has become more unpopular: more intrusive and much bigger government, more taxing and spending, more state control. The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger cites a Pew Research Poll taken after the “victory” of Obamacare:

After one year of the charismatic, ever-present Barack Obama, after passage of the party’s totemic health care bill, after spending zillions .  .  . the American people .  .  . have the lowest opinion ever of national government. .  .  . A year ago, 54 percent said government should exert more control over the economy; a year later, it’s 40 percent. Some 58 percent say Uncle Sam is interfering too much in state and local affairs. .  .  . A desire for smaller government is particularly evident since Barack Obama took office.

That’s transformation! As Henninger concluded, “Barack Obama took a rising reservoir of public trust for his party .  .  . and emptied it.” Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions poll, conducted in the second week of July, showed that only 11 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress. “Half of Americans now say they have ‘very little’ or ‘no’ confidence in Congress, up from 38 percent in 2009—and the highest for any institution since Gallup first asked this question in 1973.” Talk about change, if you care to. And as for health care, Obama’s major achievement, when the bill passed, it was opposed by a 20-point spread by the general public, and since then it has only sunk lower. In some polls, around 60 percent of respondents say that they want it repealed.

Conventional wisdom says that this cannot be happening, but on this issue, conventional wisdom has often been wrong. Conventional wisdom said the public would like the bill once it had passed (it didn’t); that the process by which it was passed wouldn’t matter (it did); that the Democrats would get a boost in the polls for being “able to govern” (they didn’t); and that Obama’s approval ratings would go up on his strong show of leadership (as if). It also thought he would “put the issue behind him,” and move on to other, more popular, measures. This hasn’t occurred. 

Obama’s health care reform may live, it may die, or it may limp along in tatters, but it has already changed history: The prospect of an enduring center-left governing coalition, which a year ago seemed a distinct possibility, is now gone.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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