The Magazine

Neither Roosevelt nor Reagan

How Obama blew his opportunity.

Aug 2, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 43 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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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. 

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