For a success, Barack Obama is a very bad politician, the worst politician to win the presidency by an electoral landslide, to never lose a major election, or to rise to the presidency from a state legislature in little more than four years. He has gone from sterling campaigner to put-upon leader; from the new FDR to the next Jimmy Carter; from being the orator who could hold millions spellbound to the man who moves no one at all. The man who promised everything is delivering nothing. Journalists who wept when he won the election now grind their teeth in despair. Maureen Dowd admits he isn’t the one for whom even he had been waiting. The gap between sizzle and steak never seemed so large or alarming, and inquiring minds want to know what went wrong.
Did the prince (assuming he was one) turn into a frog? Did he use all his luck up in winning his office? Did he, once in power, see his governing skills fade away? The answers to these things are no, yes, and no. The record suggests that he was never a prince (merely a fantasy); that his luck went away once his free ride had ended; and that he had few political, that is, governing, skills to begin with, a fact that is now more than clear. In three areas at least, he appears to be lacking. Let us walk back and see what they are.
Good politicians create coalitions and then tend them carefully, draw people in from the opposite party, and make their own party (like Reagan and Roosevelt) both bigger and different than it was before. Obama inherited a coalition by chance and dismantled it during his first years in office, having never understood what it was made of, how it developed, how fragile it was, and what it would take to maintain. This coalition had formed by itself shortly after the Lehman Brothers collapse tipped the financial world into chaos in September 2008, and the election, without his having even to wiggle his fingers, fell into his open and welcoming lap. Aside from taking the rap for what was a crisis cooked up by both parties, the GOP was hit by two other strokes of bad fortune: Its nominee, John McCain, was a war hero and foreign policy maven, whose financial credentials were minimal. And the widely despised TARP bailout measure could have been fashioned on purpose to split the Republican party, which took two weeks off from the campaign against Democrats to open fire within its own ranks, laying waste to the sense that the party could govern and sending swing voters fleeing in droves.
The numbers for those days tell the whole story: Before September 15, the McCain/Palin ticket was leading Obama and Biden by two to three points in most national polls; within days, it was trailing by five, and then six. Before September 15, states like Ohio and Florida had been trending in McCain’s direction; after it, they swung back to the Democrats’ side. Weeks later, Obama beat John McCain by a spread of 53-46 percent, the widest popular-vote margin for a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Obama captured the classic swing states of Ohio and Florida, but he also carried states, regions, and voting groups Republicans had seen for decades as their property. He won the purple/red states of Virginia, Indiana, and North Carolina; he did better with whites, and white males, than Al Gore or John Kerry; and he swept Hispanics, whose losses George W. Bush had kept to a minimum. He exploded the red and blue map of the previous decade and expanded the Democrats’ reach into unexplored country, painting large swaths of the continent blue.
Pundits predicted a decades-long liberal dominance. Newsweek proclaimed us all socialists. John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, who had predicted an Emerging Democratic Majority almost a decade before, said it had emerged, albeit belatedly, and would be around a long while. “This realignment is predicated on a change in political demography and geography,” Judis said. “Groups that had been disproportionately Republican have become disproportionately Democratic, and red states like Virginia have turned blue.”