Presidential résumés have run the gamut -- from commanding general of the United States Army (Ulysses S. Grant) all the way down to collector of the Port of New York (Chester A. Arthur). Unfortunately, since George McGovern ruined the presidential nominating system in 1971, there has been a new potential item for the presidential CV: navigating the byzantine process of primaries and caucuses better than any competitor.
Not all eventual nominees have managed to do this (e.g. Gerald Ford was nearly outflanked in 1976, so was Ronald Reagan in 1980), and with only two presidents has this been a prime "qualification" for winning the nomination. The first was Jimmy Carter, whose insurgent campaign in 1976 exhibited an advanced understanding of the new, open process that now governs the selection of party candidates. The second was Barack Obama, whose campaign team grasped the seemingly inscrutable complexities of the new system better than anybody ever has. Breaking down the popular vote in the 2008 Democratic battle, it was a basically a tie; Obama defeated Hillary Clinton for the nomination because he out-organized her, especially in caucus states like Colorado, Idaho, and Minnesota.
Carter and Obama share another bullet point: neither really had much of anything to do with politics before the presidency. In fact, both candidates touted their inexperience as a qualification. In Obama’s case, he – unlike the rest of the serious Democratic challengers in 2008 – had nothing to do with the foreign policy of the Bush administration, and in the general election he ran as a “fresh face” against John McCain.
Unfortunately, gaming the nomination process plus having no significant experience in government turns out to be a grossly insufficient combination for presidential leadership. Day by day, week by week, we are becoming more aware that, when it comes to the political dance in Washington, Obama is foxtrotting with two left feet.
Consider the following:
1. The stimulus battle. It was a substantial political blunder not to pull in more than token Republican support, as it meant that the White House and congressional Democrats would be on the hook for the entire bill and its consequences. Beyond that, the White House made the classic mistake of over-promising and under-delivering:
Only a novice would ok a graph as politically dangerous as this one. A novice like…this president!
2. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This was a total political disaster. The grotesque spectacle of passing this bill completely undermined Obama’s pledge to change the way Washington works. The policy substance was just as bad; most Americans want it repealed even a year on. And, to top it all off, it might just be unconstitutional!
3. The war on terror. As the president would say, "let me be clear:" we’re closing Guantanamo Bay and we’re trying KSM in New York City. Oh…wait!
4. The deficit. Today, President Obama is scheduled to give a major speech that will outline a new vision for cutting the deficit. Never mind that his budget, unveiled in February, was supposed to do precisely that. The fact that he’s trying again to get a handle on the deficit issue means that the White House is tacitly admitting that his original budget was a complete and total political disaster.
And then of course, we have the regular verbal gaffes. The Cambridge police acted “stupidly.” Hispanic voters need to “punish [their] enemies.” Doctors are taking out children’s tonsils for profit. People who own gas guzzlers (like for instance, the Cadillac Escalade from government-backed GM!) should trade them in if they don’t like the price of fuel today.
If Gerald Ford had uttered any of these ridiculous comments, Chevy Chase and the Not Ready for Primetime Players would have had a field day. Yet somehow Obama manages to get a pass. The latest example of his free ride can be seen in this AP article on Obama’s deficit speech. Nowhere does it mention that this is the president’s second stab at a deficit reduction program this year. This CNN article grudgingly concedes as much, but puts the complaint in the mouths of Republicans (emphasis added):
To Republicans, the Obama stance is an about-face from his own 2012 budget proposal released in February that called for no significant reforms to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid that contribute the most to growing deficits.
None of this should come as a surprise. Obama has been demonstrating his political tone deafness since he emerged as the frontrunner in early 2008: his comment about how “bitter” rural Pennsylvanians “cling” to guns and God, how Hillary Clinton is “likeable enough,” the “vero possumus” seal, the arrogant trip to Europe that summer, the grand Barackopolis, and the weirdo artwork. All of these were politically short-sighted comments or images that the media intentionally overlooked. When you get right down to it, Obama hit his high point at Iowa’s Jefferson Jackson Dinner in November, 2007. It’s been downhill ever since – with one verbal gaffe or policy misstep after another.
Of course, the media overlooking all this stuff does not make the problem go away. And the proof is in the pudding: the right can’t stand him, the middle has abandoned him, and now even the left is criticizing him out in the open.
Let’s face it: this president is just plain bad at politics.