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.
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.