For Washington, this is definitely not the best of times. The town is suffering from a power outage.
The evidence is hard to miss, from Washington’s weeklong struggle to cope with storm damage that knocked out electricity across the region to President Obama’s inability to awaken the economy, as reflected once again in June’s pathetic jobs report.
To make matters worse, Washing-ton is out of sync with the country, at least with the noncoastal parts. The usual response is to unleash the president so he can rally America to Washington’s purposes. But the bully pulpit hasn’t been effective since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. And Obama has failed to revive it.
The president was bailed out when the Supreme Court upheld his health care program on the flimsiest of constitutional grounds. That, however, did not bring Obama or Washington into harmony with the rest of the country. On the contrary, Obamacare remains a source of bitter conflict.
What’s clear is that Obama is no longer a commanding presence, much less a force for national unity. This is important because Washington has always been a White House-centered town. The media, indeed most Americans, look to the president for leadership. He acts. Congress reacts.
Obama has acted clumsily. He’s proved to be a poor negotiator, alienating congressional Republicans rather than finding even a shred of common ground. He has turned to issuing executive orders, a sure sign of weakness. Legislation passed by Congress is difficult to repeal. Executive orders can be erased at a stroke of the next president’s pen.
Obama isn’t the only cause of Washington’s power shortage. The capital’s political community—bureaucrats, lobbyists, ideological groups, trade organizations, the press, hangers-on of all stripes—plays a role. This body of permanent Washingtonians believes that it knows not only what’s best for America, but where things are headed. More often than not it guesses wrong.
The consensus in Washington was that Obama would “pivot” to the center after the Republican landslide in the 2010 midterm elections. He moved left. And according to the prevailing view in Washington, Obama would be a strong favorite to win a second term. But his reelection prospects are no better than 50-50.
There’s more. Washington looked askance at the Tea Party, but took the Occupy Wall Street movement quite seriously when it came to town. The Washington Post treated Occupy Washington as a group of idealists with nothing on their minds but the betterment of life for all Americans. The Tea Partiers, in contrast, were harmful extremists.
When Obama refused to accommodate the Tea Party message of the 2010 elections, the Washington community followed suit. There was outrage, for example, at the idea that raising the debt limit should be accompanied by cuts in federal spending. That the president might be obligated to compromise with Republicans on the spending issue was not taken seriously.
Here, the division between Washing--ton and much of the country has emerged once more. The expectation in Washington was that Republicans had hurt themselves badly by insisting on cuts. But polls showed the opposite was true. Obama’s job approval fell.
Despite this, Washington’s negative view of Republicans has hardened, and Obama’s self-serving scenario has been accepted. His narrative: I’ve tried to bring Republicans on board, but they’re committed to obstructionism. In fact, Obama offered Republicans nothing to gain their votes on his economic stimulus or the health care bill and little in budget cuts except from defense.
Americans want to like their presidents. But they’re not crazy about bureaucrats, either in Washington or anywhere else. Yet Obama is bent on giving unelected bureaucrats greater authority in the federal government. Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, the Wall Street reform bill, created at least 188 new boards and commissions, offices and grant programs, to be run by bureaucrats.
A cherished objective in Obama-care was the new Independent Pay-ment Advisory Board of 15 bureaucrats empowered to decide what Medicare—and thus health insurers—will pay for. The White House also insisted on establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to regulate consumer loans and freed it from normal congressional budget constraints, with funding directly from the Federal Reserve. And now the Obama administration wants to hire 4,000 more Internal Revenue Service agents to ensure Obamacare is strictly enforced.
That’s a lot for the public to swallow. And Obama thinks hiring more government workers, especially at the state level, is the key to boosting the economy.
He’s been forced to choose between what looks good to Washington’s elite and what most Americans prefer. He’s sided with Washington. What he’s sacrificed is power, most of which comes from outside Washington.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.