Political winds are funny things. When they are blowing in from behind, leaders look poised, in control, and powerful. When they are blowing into their face, they look overwhelmed, out of their depth, and utterly impotent. We have seen this time and again over the years with presidents.
Take Jimmy Carter. When he was a candidate for the presidency, he promised to return the office to the people, and bring about a moral revival. It helped him become the first person from the Deep South ever to win the White House, but he looked like a fool when the country was hit with 10 percent inflation. The “malaise” speech, followed by his request for all his Cabinet heads to submit their resignations, was actually classic Carter – he was asking the country to look carefully at itself and he would do the same with his administration. But it totally backfired, and he was mocked for seeming erratic.
Take George H.W. Bush. During the Gulf War, he looked like a supremely skillful world leader, successfully managing a broad international coalition to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. But a year later, when the full effects of the recession were being felt, those assets suddenly became liabilities. Sure, he was managing the post-Cold War international regime successfully, but he was out of touch with the average American.
How about Bill Clinton? The first part of his term was marred by scandals of the petty misdemeanor sort, which drove his approval rating into the mid-30s very quickly as the country limped through a weak recovery from the 1990-91 recession. In his second term, Clinton continued to behave in a sleazy way; and worse, his behavior with Monica Lewinsky ended up killing a deal to reform Social Security. However, the economy was finally humming along with 4 percent economic growth, so the public kept him because he was, in his words, “doing the work of the American people.”
How about George W. Bush? He campaigned in 2000 as a man of principle whose decisions would not be swayed by political considerations. This resoluteness helped him win reelection in 2004, but by the next year, as the Iraq War started to drift, the public suddenly came to see this same quality as stubbornness.
The point is that, when the wind is blowing in your face, it is really very difficult to look like you are in full control. More likely, the press will make a mountain out of every tiny molehill, and old assets will suddenly become liabilities.
That’s what we’re seeing with Barack Obama. There are plenty of examples of ways in which he is criticized now, but either he or his predecessors were not scolded in the past for similar behavior. Take his love of golfing; he certainly has not golfed more than, say, Dwight Eisenhower. So what’s the problem? It’s that the unemployment rate has been persistently elevated during his tenure, while it was quite low during Ike’s time.
How about fundraising? Candidate Obama sure did plenty of that in 2008, and in fact raised the bar for money to be raised in a campaign. Yet nobody said a peep. Now, it is a big issue that he is fundraising so regularly. Why? It’s that darned unemployment rate.
And we saw it just last week. Obama stuck his foot in his mouth with that comment about the private sector “doing fine,” but he sticks his foot in his mouth all the time! Remember bitter clingers? Remember his crack about the Special Olympics? Remember “lipstick on a pig”? Remember “you’re likable enough, Hillary”? Remember “spread the wealth around”? All of this stuff was typically glossed over, with only Obama’s conservative opponents focusing on any of it.
What made last week’s gaffe so memorable was not that it was out of character for this president, but that his political position has eroded since he made any of those old gaffes. In 2008, he could stick his foot in his mouth about small town Pennsylvania and not pay a political price for it because he was not responsible in any way for the region’s economic decline. But could you imagine if he said that now?
What’s more, Democratic strategists are joining the chorus of Democratic talking heads criticizing Team Obama. Every choice his campaign makes is now criticized somewhere by somebody on his own side as short-sighted, ineffectual, and sometimes even foolish. But how much is that Team Obama’s fault, and how much is it just the awful landscape they have to deal with? And is the critics’ advice any better? That’s doubtful. Instead, what Team Obama is dealing with right now is a political environment in which there are no slam-dunk strategies for them.
The ironic thing about all this is that Barack Obama is now actually paying for mistakes that he made when people were praising him as the next FDR! Give a careful read to Sean Trende’s article from yesterday about what Obama could have done differently in 2009. That was the moment when his political power was at its apex – and the choices he made set the path for the rest of his tenure. Back then, the president had a real opportunity to build a relatively broad consensus to deal with the recession. He chose not to do that. Instead, he passed an ill-conceived stimulus, then proceeded to focus on health care, without regard to whether the economy was actually recovering. It actually wasn’t, and the country responded in November 2010 by electing enough Republicans to stop the president in his tracks, and there he has stayed for the last 20 months.
So now, President Obama’s fate is really out of his hands. Instead, it comes down to three things: How much the economy grows over the next five months; what the Supreme Court does with Obamacare; and finally whether Mitt Romney can persuade Americans that he’d do a better job over the next four years. For all the power that the 44th president had a few years ago, he’s now little more than a spectator, waiting and watching like the rest of us to see what happens next.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.