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Obama’s Victory Plan

The economy won’t necessarily do him in.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By FRANK CANNON and JEFFREY BELL
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If you’re wondering how President Obama plans to get reelected in 2012—and why he might succeed—look back not to 2008 but to his successful campaign to win congressional passage of Obamacare during 2009 and early 2010.

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Obamacare generated popular doubts from the beginning, and fairly early in the congressional debate voters arrived at a net-negative view. This never changed to this day, more than two years after final approval of the legislation in March 2010. Yet Team Obama devised and executed a plan that resulted in a historic victory that had eluded earlier Democratic presidents.

It’s often assumed that this was achieved by simple fact of the overwhelmingly Democratic makeup of the 111th Congress elected with Barack Obama in 2008. While it is true this predominance turned out to be a precondition of victory, the politically explosive rise of the Tea Party beginning in early 2009 and skepticism even from some Democratic-leaning constituencies made passage of Obamacare far from inevitable.

Team Obama learned early on that the president’s many speeches on the subject would have zero impact on voters’ view of his plan. Instead the administration focused on mobilizing the left power base (labor, the social left, AARP, and Hollywood) and moving through special interests (hospitals, insurance companies, Fortune 500) to assemble, piece by piece, an economic and lobbying juggernaut. 

Conservative and Republican elites responded, for the most part, with a defense of free markets and a knowledgeable critique of top-down, government-imposed medicine. This was a strategy that had been successful in the resistance to Hillarycare in 1993-94, and on many levels it won the public debate of 2009-10. But in retrospect it proved one-dimensional in comparison with what the administration was bringing to bear.

The essence of the Obama strategy was an odd combination of moral lecturing and raw power—Harvard married to the Chicago Way. Social conservatives and grassroots Tea Party types attempted to attack Obamacare on the moral plane—warning about death panels, universal abortion coverage, violation of the Constitution, etc.—but the Washington-based conservative leadership that set the tone and controlled most of the opposition spending preferred to steer away from such arguments and toward explanations of why Obamacare would make health care worse in practice for most if not all Americans. In the end this wasn’t enough.

Now a souped-up Obamacare strategy has taken center stage in the president’s campaign for reelection. Fundraising problems? Move up the timetable for endorsement of same-sex marriage. Buyer’s remorse among pro-immigration Latino voters? Steal the bipartisan DREAM Act compromise being developed by Florida senator Marco Rubio and issue it as a temporary enforcement guideline from the Department of Homeland Security.  

The other half of the parallel to Obamacare is a decision to stop arguing—or at least stop agonizing—about the big picture. In Obamacare, the big picture—the elephant in the room—was the overall unpopularity of Obama-care. At a certain point, Team Obama realized that by negotiating deals and understandings with powerful constituencies, they could overcome the unpopularity of the bill.

Today, of course, the elephant in the room is the mediocre economy. Obama’s allusion to the private sector doing “fine”—and his quick retraction of it—was the last time in the campaign we’re likely to hear any disagreement about the state of the national economy. From now until November 6, Democrats and Republicans will be in agreement about what the electorate already knows: The economy is badly underperforming. 

What we haven’t heard the last of is the blame game. After three-and-a-half Obama years, blaming George W. Bush for the financial crisis, the 2007-09 recession, and the subsequent stagnation infuriates Republican elites (particularly Bush alumni). But as a line of attack, it is far more in accord with the views of American voters than the (now abandoned) contention that under Obama the national economy has made a decent comeback.

In Gallup’s most recent sounding on this issue, taken in early June, 68 percent of voters blame George W. Bush a “great deal” or a “moderate amount” for the nation’s economic problems, while 52 percent assign such blame to Obama. Perhaps counter-intuitively, voters’ blaming of Bush has not faded with time and distance from the Bush presidency. The percentage blaming Bush for economic conditions did drop from around 80 percent to 70 percent between the summer of 2009 and the summer of 2010, but it has remained stable in the nearly two years since then. 

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