President Obama’s greatest need is to escape the ideological grip of congressional Democrats and the liberal base of the Democratic party (they’re one and the same). But he either doesn’t recognize this or, as a conventional liberal himself, isn’t so inclined. This self-inflicted difficulty has put Obama in worse political straits than President Clinton faced after the Republican landslide of 1994.
Certainly there was nothing in Obama’s State of the Union address last week to indicate he understands the fix he’s in or has devised a credible way to get out of it. His message, though he didn’t put it in quite these words, was that he’d rather fight for unpopular liberal policies than switch to broadly appealing centrist ones.
A bad omen for Obama and Democrats was the pleased-as-punch response of Capitol Hill’s top Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It makes my job a little easier than if he were moving to the middle and picking up people,” McConnell says. “I naïvely thought he was going to do a course correction.”
McConnell characterizes the Obama strategy as: “Ignore the public, we know what’s best, full speed ahead.” The practical effect is to yield the political high ground to Republicans. “He can call us the party of no till he’s blue in the face,” McConnell says. “It depends on what you’re saying no to.”
When the president had lunch with television anchors at the White House the day of the speech, he minimized his political distress. Were the rate of unemployment two points lower, he’d be in fine shape, Obama suggested. That’s probably true. And if pigs had wings they could fly.
Since the Republican Senate victory in Massachusetts on January 19 and the collapse of Obama’s domestic agenda, the parallels between Obama now and Clinton in 1994 have come into sharp focus. The president, by the way, told the anchors Republican Scott Brown won because he was the better candidate, not because he made opposition to Obama’s policies the centerpiece of his campaign.
To save his presidency after his stiff rebuff in the midterm elections, Clinton lurched to the political center. He adopted a strategy of “triangulation” that involved painful compromises with Republicans, who had captured the House and Senate. It worked. Clinton glided to reelection in 1996, defeating Republican Bob Dole by 7 points.
Though it’s rarely acknowledged, Clinton’s most significant successes in the White House were all in conjunction with Republicans: the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, welfare reform in 1996, and balanced budget legislation in 1997 that included a cut in the capital gains tax rate from 28 percent to 20 percent that spurred the financial boom and budget surplus of his second term.
For Clinton, creating daylight between his presidency and liberal Democrats was easy. They hadn’t been responsible for his election in 1992, nor was he ideologically tethered to them. In Obama’s case, separating himself would be hard. The liberal base was instrumental in his election, controls both houses of Congress, and may retain its majority after the 2010 midterms as well. As a politician, Obama is a creature of modern liberalism.
Even if Obama wanted to, it would be awkward for him to negotiate legislative deals with Republicans while liberal Democrats control Congress. And it would be regarded as a betrayal if he vetoed a Democratic bill. I can’t recall a recent example of a president vetoing a measure passed by his own party. Obama’s veto threats in the State of the Union weren’t taken seriously by Democrats or Republicans.
At the core of Obama’s trouble is a misreading of the 2008 election. He and Democratic liberals interpreted it as a mandate for an era of liberal lawmaking and governance in a newly minted center-left America. And they set out to create that era with sweeping initiatives on health care, energy and the environment, and the economy.
They were wrong, as everyone but the most unswerving or fogbound liberal now understands. America is a center-right country politically and has been for decades. Pushing a liberal agenda for a year has cost Obama dearly. His public approval has fallen at a record rate (for a first-year president), and so has support for his policies.
He is clinging to the one advantage his party retains, its strength in Congress. “To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills,” Obama declared in the speech. Sorry, Mr. President, but dozens of Democrats in Republican-leaning districts or red states are already in full flight, either deciding to retire or abandoning your agenda.
Obama is giving aid and comfort to the Republican counterstrategy. As in 1994, Republicans say they’re ready to cooperate with the president when they can, oppose him when they can’t. So McConnell, for one, is willing to go along with Obama’s puny budget freeze. But Obama hasn't offered Republicans much else that might be risky to oppose.
To salvage Obamacare, Democrats buttonholed several Republican senators last week with schemes for tweaking the bill. The senators declined to negotiate, telling the Democrats, “Call McConnell.” Under McConnell’s leadership, Senate Republicans are united in preferring to start over, from scratch, on health care reform. So far, McConnell hasn’t gotten a call from the White House or any Democrat.
To boost his recovery after the Republican landslide of 1994, Clinton found a useful foil, the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich. When Gingrich overreached, Clinton was the beneficiary. Obama desperately needs a foil, but his attempts to turn McConnell and Republicans into one have failed. Instead, he’s become their foil.
Let’s give Obama credit for intellectual honesty. He believes in his agenda. Speaking at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore last week, Obama insisted, “I am not an ideologue.” But he sure can pass for one. And despite his travails, Obama brims with self-confidence. He told Democrat Marion Berry of Arkansas, a seven-term House member, that Democrats today have a unique advantage they lacked in 1994—“me.” Berry doesn’t agree. He’s retiring.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.