Morning Jay: Obama Has No Clue What To Do With Himself
6:00 AM, Aug 12, 2011 • By JAY COST
For what it’s worth, this is what I think Obama should do. He needs to track down Dr. Emmett Brown -- I think he still lives in Hill Valley, Calif. -- and see if he’ll loan him his DeLorean. Then, the president should travel back in time to 2009 to talk himself out of all the terrible mistakes he made that year.
Obama started going wrong from the get-go. Far from offering the economic boost that was promised, the stimulus was instead the single largest payoff to the Democratic clientele in political history. Liberals are telling us now that it was not large enough – but conservatives have been saying for two-and-a-half years that pork for Democratic loyalists is a lousy way to jump-start the economy, no matter how expensive it is. Then, Obama followed that up not with a “laser-beam” focus on jobs – but rather cap and trade and Obamacare. These two items dominated the legislative agenda through the rest of 2009 and the first part of 2010. They were not priorities of the public, but rather of the party elite, whose attitude was: We have this enormous majority, so we’d better do something with it.
This is a huge reason why the Democrats lost so many seats in the 2010 midterm. Yet most of this free advice for the president usually ignores the midterm results outright, or brushes them aside by claiming that the voting public in 2010 was so different than what we normally see during presidential years that we should pay it no mind. (Unmentioned is the fact that Obama’s job approval rating in polls of all adults has been generally weak for almost two years, or that the 2010 electorate actually looked a lot like the 2004 electorate.)
But the midterm of 2010 is, so far, the decisive political moment in the Obama presidency. The formal powers of the president are wafer thin, at least on domestic policy. His power in that sphere is largely informal: He can make a difference by influencing members of Congress to do what they otherwise would not do. There are two ways that can happen. First, members understand that their political fate is tied to the president’s, so it’s in their interests to accede to his demands. Second, members dare not cross him because of the influence the president has over the local constituency.
The midterm of 2010 wiped out both of these informal powers for the president. Only Democrats have their fates tied to Obama’s, and they no longer control a majority of the Congress. As for the GOP, with Obama’s numbers as weak as they are, there is no reason for the Republicans in the House to fear this president.
Assuming Doc Brown is nowhere to be found, what Obama needs is a strategy that restores his credibility with the public, and thus enables him to pressure the Congress. Two Democratic presidents faced this kind of challenge in the last sixty years, and both successfully reinvented themselves.
In 1945 and 1946 Harry Truman was hesitant and stumbling – and he paid the price as inflation and labor strikes hampered the economic transition to peacetime. However, he found his stride after the Republicans took control in the 80th Congress. On foreign affairs, he smartly isolated former vice president Henry Wallace, and thus diminished the ability of the Republicans to run on anti-Communism. On domestic affairs, Truman guessed, correctly as it turned out, that the Republicans had over-interpreted their mandate and that their agenda to curb labor unions, reduce spending, and cut taxes would not play well with middle America. So, Truman gave ‘em hell – and won in 1948.
In 1993 and 1994, Bill Clinton had largely acceded to the demands of the congressional liberals, and this contributed to the size of the Republican tsunami in 1994. Afterward, Clinton correctly intuited that the Republicans had won by trumpeting the same kinds of issues that he himself had campaigned on in 1992 – welfare reform, tax cuts, and deficit reduction. So, Clinton cut deals with the Republicans on all these items and, by acting as a moderate influence on the conservative Congress, he could finally present himself as the different kind of Democrat he had long promised to be.