At the end of his opening statement at the traditional postelection presidential press conference, Barack Obama offered this assurance: “I continue to believe we are simply more than just a collection of red and blue states,” he said. “We are the United States.”
Those words were a deliberate echo of the memorable keynote address he delivered a decade ago at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. They were powerful then because his passionate delivery suggested he deeply believed them, and because many Americans wanted to believe them, too.
Last week, Obama recited those words impassively from a prepared statement. They followed a series of clichés and preceded a list of empty promises. His words no longer move the country. Even Barack Obama doesn’t seem to believe much that comes out of the president’s mouth these days.
The Age of Obama may be over, but his presidency continues, alas. It’s pointless to engage in debates about whether he’s still “relevant.” He’s the president. That’s always relevant. From extraconstitutional power plays on immigration to naïve and dangerous nuclear negotiations with Iran, his influence remains in very important ways.
It’s clear, though, that the Obama project has failed. He sought to alter the political trajectory of the country, to put it on a “fundamentally different path,” as Ronald Reagan had, to “restore faith in government,” and to “make government cool again.” It didn’t work, thanks to a series of scandals and six years of policy failures.
A few exit polls from last week make this clear. Nearly six years after the Obama administration’s $1 trillion stimulus, 22 percent of the electorate rate the current economy “poor” and 48 percent say “not so good.” Only 28 percent say the economy is “good,” and just 1 percent believe it’s “excellent.”
Voters not only believe things are bad today, they are deeply pessimistic about the future. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate (65 percent) believe the country is on the “wrong track,” and an extraordinary three-quarters of voters say life for their children will be the same (27 percent) or worse (48 percent) than it is today.
Not surprisingly, these voters blame the Obama administration. Just 10 percent say they are “enthusiastic” about the administration and 29 percent say “satisfied,” but 32 percent say they are “dissatisfied” and 27 percent say “angry.”
They’re not looking to Washington for help. Just 3 percent of respondents say they trust government “just about always,” and 17 percent say “most of the time,” while 60 percent trust the government only “sometimes,” and 18 percent “never.” Other polling in recent weeks shows that faith in government is at post-Watergate lows.
So what do you do if you’re the party of government? One answer: Do everything possible to make sure that those who still believe in government show up to vote. That worked for Democrats in 2012, when the failures weren’t as broadly understood as they are today and Obama was more popular. It failed miserably in 2014, when Obama’s policies were on the ballot but he was not.
A second possibility, following the example of Obama at his press conference: Pretend that things are going well and that the results of the election represent a failure of the electorate to understand the success of his policies. Obama insists that the economy is humming and that Obamacare is a success, but he worries “that the way we are talking about issues isn’t working.”
Nor does a third approach seem very promising: Nominate Hillary Clinton, a creature of Washington and former member of the Obama administration, to recast stale liberal ideas as the path to American renewal.
The immediate task for Republicans is comparatively straightforward: Make clear that the failures over these past six years are not merely the result of one man’s incompetence but reflect flaws inherent in an approach to governing that puts the state at the center of solving our problems. The problem is liberalism or progressivism or whatever “ism” the left embraces next to salvage its failed ideas through rebranding.
There are already calls from the conventional-wisdom set in Washington for Republicans to demonstrate their willingness to work with the president and to make clear that they can be a “responsible” governing party. We’re all for responsibility and good governance, but Republicans control Congress, not the White House, and there are limits to what they can do.
Barack Obama has repeatedly demonstrated—by his words and actions immediately after elections in 2008, 2010, and 2012—that he believes “compromise” happens when Republicans agree with him. He made clear in his press conference last week that he’s not about to change.