Rumors of Barack Obama’s political skill have been greatly exaggerated.
Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By NOEMIE EMERY
For a success, Barack Obama is a very bad politician, the worst politician to win the presidency by an electoral landslide, to never lose a major election, or to rise to the presidency from a state legislature in little more than four years. He has gone from sterling campaigner to put-upon leader; from the new FDR to the next Jimmy Carter; from being the orator who could hold millions spellbound to the man who moves no one at all. The man who promised everything is delivering nothing. Journalists who wept when he won the election now grind their teeth in despair. Maureen Dowd admits he isn’t the one for whom even he had been waiting. The gap between sizzle and steak never seemed so large or alarming, and inquiring minds want to know what went wrong.
Did the prince (assuming he was one) turn into a frog? Did he use all his luck up in winning his office? Did he, once in power, see his governing skills fade away? The answers to these things are no, yes, and no. The record suggests that he was never a prince (merely a fantasy); that his luck went away once his free ride had ended; and that he had few political, that is, governing, skills to begin with, a fact that is now more than clear. In three areas at least, he appears to be lacking. Let us walk back and see what they are.
Good politicians create coalitions and then tend them carefully, draw people in from the opposite party, and make their own party (like Reagan and Roosevelt) both bigger and different than it was before. Obama inherited a coalition by chance and dismantled it during his first years in office, having never understood what it was made of, how it developed, how fragile it was, and what it would take to maintain. This coalition had formed by itself shortly after the Lehman Brothers collapse tipped the financial world into chaos in September 2008, and the election, without his having even to wiggle his fingers, fell into his open and welcoming lap. Aside from taking the rap for what was a crisis cooked up by both parties, the GOP was hit by two other strokes of bad fortune: Its nominee, John McCain, was a war hero and foreign policy maven, whose financial credentials were minimal. And the widely despised TARP bailout measure could have been fashioned on purpose to split the Republican party, which took two weeks off from the campaign against Democrats to open fire within its own ranks, laying waste to the sense that the party could govern and sending swing voters fleeing in droves.
The numbers for those days tell the whole story: Before September 15, the McCain/Palin ticket was leading Obama and Biden by two to three points in most national polls; within days, it was trailing by five, and then six. Before September 15, states like Ohio and Florida had been trending in McCain’s direction; after it, they swung back to the Democrats’ side. Weeks later, Obama beat John McCain by a spread of 53-46 percent, the widest popular-vote margin for a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Obama captured the classic swing states of Ohio and Florida, but he also carried states, regions, and voting groups Republicans had seen for decades as their property. He won the purple/red states of Virginia, Indiana, and North Carolina; he did better with whites, and white males, than Al Gore or John Kerry; and he swept Hispanics, whose losses George W. Bush had kept to a minimum. He exploded the red and blue map of the previous decade and expanded the Democrats’ reach into unexplored country, painting large swaths of the continent blue.
Pundits predicted a decades-long liberal dominance. Newsweek proclaimed us all socialists. John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, who had predicted an Emerging Democratic Majority almost a decade before, said it had emerged, albeit belatedly, and would be around a long while. “This realignment is predicated on a change in political demography and geography,” Judis said. “Groups that had been disproportionately Republican have become disproportionately Democratic, and red states like Virginia have turned blue.”
Or had they? If Obama had been a good politician, he would have realized that he had been elected not by a broad and deep swath of newly minted liberal voters, but by a temporary alliance of faithful progressives (numerous, but not enough to win elections) and centrist swing voters scared out of their wits by the crash. Before the crash, as David Paul Kuhn wrote on RealClearPolitics later, McCain led Obama in the Gallup polls for nine days in succession; after, he never led again. Before, Obama cracked the 50 percent mark only once, and that was at the peak of his convention; after, he passed it 33 times. He won nine states Bush had carried four years earlier, but in six of these (including Ohio and Florida) McCain tied or led him before September 15. Why? Most of these states had large, wealthy suburbs around their big cities, where stockholders and homeowners saw huge paper losses. It was during this period that Democrats made their gains among whites, and white males.
At the same time as this massive swing towards the Democratic ticket, polls showed that the ideological split remained where it had been in the Clinton/Bush era: self-identified conservatives around 41 percent, moderates around 37 percent, liberals around 21 percent. Many people who voted for Obama were not in fact liberal, but centrist or center-right voters unnerved by the crash and the chaos in the Republican party, and drawn to Obama’s misleading aura of calm. This meant there was also a split in Obama’s electorate: The progressives liked his liberal ideas, the centrists his so-called “conservative” temperament; the progressives wanted transformation, the centrists stability; the progressives wanted the government grown, the centrists wanted the economy stabilized; the centrists were prepared for the small shift to the left that comes with the usual change from a center-right to a left-center government, the progressives were bent on sweeping and radical change.
An adept politician would have looked at the polls and realized he had a frail coalition that had to be nudged along carefully, knowing schism would destroy his majority. Obama’s mistake was to assume that the shock of the crash had turned the center hard left and to govern accordingly. “The coalition that carried Obama to victory is every bit as sturdy as America’s last two dominant political coalitions: the ones that elected Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan,” wrote Peter Beinart, reflecting the view of the press and the president. As it happened, “the coalition that carried Obama to victory” would shatter in less than nine months.
The coalition Obama never realized existed took its first hit in his first month, with his $800 billion stimulus package, which would fail to address the problem of job loss and fail in its long-run ambition to hold unemployment under 8 percent. It took its second hit just a month later, with a bailout for homeowners behind in their payments, prompting CNBC’s Rick Santelli to suggest dumping worthless derivatives into Lake Michigan, thus launching the Tea Party movement, which Obama and allies, with typical brilliance, dismissed.
The third hit, and the one that proved fatal, was the launching of national health care, a sacred cause to the left but to no one else in the country, a massive restructuring of one-sixth of the country’s economy, which would prove a mistake in its timing (FDR had waited two years to introduce Social Security), a mistake in its structure, and a mistake in the way it was framed. To keep his coalition intact, it should have been incremental, built out from the center, and addressed to the main concern of the public, which was affordability. Instead, the plan that emerged from Congress was comprehensive, built out from the left, geared to help the uninsured (one-sixth of the country) at the expense of everything else in the system, and based on the premise, which no one believed, that it could expand subsidized coverage to millions of people while at the same time keeping costs down.
This was not what the centrists had signed on for, and in the course of the summer, they started to flee. Obama’s numbers began drifting down from their astronomical highs to more human levels, and support for his bill into negative country. Democrats from purple and red states found themselves besieged by angry constituents, whose concerns Obama did nothing to appease or acknowledge. They then flung themselves into the arms of Republicans, who, dazed and despondent after Obama’s election, could scarcely believe their own luck.
In October, Democrats rammed the bill through the House, winning by 7 votes out of a 79-seat majority, with no Republicans voting in favor, and 34 Democrats voting against. In November came the off-year elections for governor, in New Jersey, a blue state which Obama had won a year earlier by a 15-point margin, and Virginia, a purple/red state which Obama had carried by 7. Obama wrapped his arms around Democrats Creigh Deeds and Jon Corzine. Independents, who had rallied for him a year earlier, looked, and ran hard in the other direction. Deeds lost by 18 points to Bob McDonnell. Corzine lost to Chris Christie by 3.
In December, Democrats pushed the bill through the Senate, by means of hundreds of millions in bribes and kickbacks to wavering members of their own party. House speaker Nancy Pelosi called it a “gift for the American people.” The people thought differently. In January, Scott Brown won a Senate race in Massachusetts, taking the seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy, and becoming the first member of his party to represent his state in that body in 30 years. The bill was thought dead, and most Democrats breathed sighs of relief and exhaustion. But their perils were not over yet.
Proving there was no pain he would not inflict on his party, Obama seized on a loophole to push it back through the House, a Pickett’s charge of a mission which would prove a death sentence for many congressional Democrats. “The legislation has become a disaster,” wrote Howard Fineman in what used to be Newsweek. “The leaders of Troy knew they were making a mistake when they wheeled that horse into their besieged city, but they did it anyway. We’ll see what happens this fall.”
Obamacare passed the Senate 60-39, and they saw. “The Democrats’ hope with health care was that ‘people will like it after we pass it.’ Well, they hate it,” wrote pollster Pat Caddell in September. Time magazine found “a sense of disappointment, bordering on betrayal” among many voters. “In Nevada, a state Obama won with 55 percent, . . . only 29 percent of likely voters . . . think the president’s actions have helped the economy.” In Indiana, a state legislator said she was often approached by former Obama supporters who wanted to “vent” their frustrations: “Betrayed by the health care vote,” “He’s not what I voted for,” “What are they thinking when it comes to spending?” were the most common themes.
In one go, the 2010 midterms wiped out the combined Democratic gains in the House of the previous two “wave” elections, took from them 6 seats in the Senate and 10 governorships, along with control of state houses, in swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. An army of rising young GOP stars vowed to work for health care repeal in the House and the Senate; governors vowed to work for repeal and resist implementation; and state attorneys general wasted no time in filing suits in federal courts to have the law declared unconstitutional. The use of wedge issues is common in politics—issues carefully selected to unite one party while dividing the other—but it is rare to use them against one’s own party. It takes an unusual politician to achieve this objective. One who’s not very good at his craft.
Good politicians are in sync with their times, understand them, and deal with their challenges. But Obama is at odds, and often at war, with his own. In an age when debt is a problem, he is a big spender; when government has to cut back, he wants to expand both its expense and its reach. Nothing that happens appears to deter him, not the massive pushback from the American people in the 2009 and 2010 elections; not the crisis in Europe, kicked off by the collapse of Greece’s finances in April 2010, which caused an austerity panic all over Europe, and should have driven home the most cogent of lessons: that exactly as he was trying to turn his country into a social democracy like those of old Europe, which the American left had long admired, the European social democracies had been forced to admit that their model could not be sustained.
The result is that Obama is now an outlier among the world’s leaders: the one head of a first world industrial nation who is not calling for cutbacks and thrift. In Britain, David Cameron plans cuts of $130 billion; in France, Nicolas Sarkozy raised the retirement age and has limited pensions. “We can’t finance our social model,” said the president of the European Council, facing the reality that longer life expectancy, a smaller work force, and regulations and policies that inhibit productivity have called a halt to an era of generous benefits. Obama alone is hopelessly enamored of the past.
Perhaps it was all those Photoshopped pictures of Obama as Franklin D. Roosevelt that made him seem caught in a time warp—in 1933, when FDR met the Great Depression with a massive expansion of government (which was at the time perhaps too small for its purpose), or in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson leveraged the death of John Kennedy to pass the civil rights bills (as JFK would have wanted) and the Great Society programs (about which Kennedy might well have had second thoughts). It was the overreach and subsequent failure of those Great Society programs that led to the backlash against the liberal project, and the skepticism about the expansion of government that persists to this day. A good politician would have understood this, and known that, while there was plenty of room for tinkering with the basic functions of government, there was no going back to those innocent days. This was not 1933, or 1964, for that matter, and Obama had no Dust Bowl or tragic, dead president to stir people’s hearts. What he had was an unpopular deficit he proceeded to triple. And then he wanted to spend even more.
Faced with a public revolt, he went on to ignore it. At the State of the Union in 2011, he spoke for 40 minutes before mentioning deficits, and then did so fleetingly. In February, he sent the Senate a budget so bad that the senators of both parties unanimously rejected it. In April, he made another speech on the budget in which he talked about spending additional millions on such boutique liberal projects as green jobs and light rail.
There is a great role for a liberal president—saving the safety net by making it viable—but it’s not a role he wants to play. Great presidents (Roosevelt and Reagan) transform their times; good presidents (Eisenhower and Kennedy) understand them almost without trying; bad presidents (Buchanan and Carter) are overwhelmed by them. Obama is the first who has tried to defy them. This cannot, and will not, end well.
Obama’s third flaw is his failure to sense the importance of moral legitimacy, to which his failure to understand coalitions is linked. Moral legitimacy is what presidents gain when they champion reforms with a broad base of support from the public. Moral legitimacy is what the Electoral College ensures when it operates so that presidents are elected not just by bloc votes in safe states, but by groups of states representing different collections of citizens, and from different parts of the whole. Moral legitimacy is what Barack Obama threw away after Scott Brown’s election, when he made the choice to pass his health care bill on votes bribed or wrested from members of Congress, with no support outside Congress at all.
“Great measures should not be passed on narrow majorities” is an unwritten precept all leaders should heed. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson spent months building broad coalitions before passing their bills on Social Security and civil rights. Lesser politicians have tried this, and sometimes been less than successful, but until Obama, no one imagined that a president should try to pass a huge, complex, costly bill that affected everyone in the country not only without enjoying broad support, but while facing an enraged, energized, and broad coalition against it. The reasons Democrats gave were all unconvincing, and they would all prove mistaken: They had to pass something “to prove they could govern.” They had to have something to take to the voters. No one would care how the bill passed, as long as it did pass. They would look weak if they dropped it. Obama would prove himself a strong leader, and his stock with the public would rise. Alas. How were they to know that “governing” didn’t mean stiffing the public; that they would be giving Republicans an issue to take to the voters; that it was their party that would be terribly weakened by passage; and that public esteem for Obama as leader would not only not rise, but would stall, and then slowly drift down?
“Health reform has been a political dud for the Dems,” Mike Allen wrote in Politico a week after passage. Gallup found that Obama’s standing “on four key personal qualities,” including strong leadership, slipped below a majority for the first time in his presidency. And as for people not caring about the mechanics of passage, it turned out people cared. A Gallup poll showed that all adults, Republicans, and—crucially—independent voters considered the passage of the bill an “abuse of power” by margins of 53-40, 86-11, and 53-36. As Pat Caddell would say later, “Because of the way it was passed, as a crime against democracy, the country has simply not accepted it.” The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto added, “There is no precedent for a massive, unpopular expansion of the welfare state that has support only within one party. It’s possible that Americans would grudgingly come to accept it. . . . It’s also possible that they would hate it even more. . . . Obama and Pelosi not only are trifling with their party’s short-term prospects, but are putting at risk its long term viability.”
And so they did. By passing this bill against the will of the public, they brought on themselves a “long, twilight struggle,” in which the people, using all the legal, political, and tactical tools at their disposal, are endeavoring to take it apart. The fragile economic recovery, which had struggled upwards for months, stopped in its tracks after Obamacare’s passage and has yet to revive. Blame was placed on the burden in new taxes and regulations the bill would impose on businesses, along with uncertainty as to the effect the bill would have and even whether it would survive. Together, the stalled economy and Obamacare itself have already caused catastrophic losses for Democrats, and may do the same in the 2012 elections, when the Supreme Court case on the law’s constitutionality is set to go off like a bomb midcampaign.
Other presidents have failed by doing too little or nothing; Obama is the first to do himself in through hyperactivity. For a success, he is surely a failed politician. But then, what made him a success?
Obama won a race like none other, run by a candidate such as no one had seen. When he was six years old, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner showed a darkly handsome Sidney Poitier wooing the white niece of Katharine Hepburn, telling her father he hoped a child of theirs could one day be president—or secretary of state, as a concession, if the White House proved too far a reach. By the time that this fictional child would have been old enough to be either, the country had seen two black secretaries of state in succession, both popular and both boomed for president, and was palpably eager to break the highest glass ceiling of all. Of all possible candidates for the historic breakthrough, none fit the role better than Obama, “clean” and “articulate” (in the words of Joe Biden), cerebral, with elite credentials from humble beginnings, the son of an African student and a white woman from Kansas, a man who had brothers and cousins in Kenya, but could travel to Ireland (as had John Kennedy) and knock back a beer in a pub there with friends of his kin. He spanned races and continents, high and low culture, the trivial along with the sublime. He did not, as he said, look like the men on Mount Rushmore, but he looked like something perhaps more resonant: If not film-star handsome like Reagan and Kennedy, he was to an extreme degree our first Model President, the image of the cool, slim, and young seen in catalogues, the ideal of the with-it and of the postracial, living the good life as embodied by the trendy and slender in every upscale venue in the land. He never actually posed for a magazine layout, but this hardly mattered: Every picture he took looked like an ad for something expensive, and the fashion world loved him en masse.
Vogue editor Anna Wintour held a fundraiser for him. Diane von Furstenberg designed a tote in his honor. Models endorsed him. Donatella Versace dedicated a collection to him at Fashion Week in Milan. This was one side of an aspirational appeal that had numerous facets, and in which politics barely figured. He was a brand, but his appeal had a mythic dimension: He was The One, the magical Son who could heal the Original Sin of the Founding, and make the dream of equality flesh. Shelby Steele said he “flatters” America. People too young to remember the civil rights movement could pull a lever for him and feel themselves one with the freedom riders, who had risked all and bled for the cause. He was a blank slate on which people wrote their ambitions and longings. Allusions to him reached dimensions best seen as surreal: He was Reagan and Roosevelt; Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass; Martin Luther King and John Kennedy, and Moses and Jesus, as well as a feature in Gentleman’s Quarterly. His record was thin—all he had done well was speak and write (about himself, as it happened)—but that hardly mattered in the light of emotional resonance. He was a moral ideal, a fashion accessory, a note of good will to the rest of the universe. What could go wrong?
What went wrong in the first place was that too much went right. He never was able to learn from adversity, as he never saw any. He never learned to build and maintain coalitions; they simply assembled around him. He never argued people around from different positions, he simply inspired them to vague aspirations. He never passed laws, much less tried to enforce them. His idea of leading was making a speech. Miraculous things seemed to happen around him: In his breakout run that made him a national figure, he faced opposition from candidates who were sidelined by scandals before he could face them. In the Democrats’ primaries, he emerged as the candidate from academia and of the liberal white upper classes, a tranche often doomed by its want of appeal to minorities. As a black academic, he won nonwhites over, and his coalition formed by itself. His governing theory was that he would make speeches and win people over; then Nancy Pelosi would twist arms, or break them. That worked for a while, until Pelosi lost power, and so did his speeches. As a result he now seems to have run out of options, and strategies. There was, it appears, no plan B.
But what would have happened if Obama had had one, and followed it, when Scott Brown won the special election, and push came up hard against shove? Suppose he had pulled back, designed a small health care plan aimed at cost control, and forged a coalition of sorts around that. Suppose he had made it so attractive that it served as a bridge between the two halves of his coalition. Suppose it had won over a few GOP members—Scott Brown among them—the same ones who supported a few of his initiatives that appealed to their voters a little later on that year. He’d have had a win, if a small one, and would have taken a step toward repairing the split among his voters.
But what he’d have won would have been as nothing compared with what he’d have contrived to avoid. Think of the burdens he would not be bearing at present if he had been clever enough to step back: no bad blood and no bloodbath within his own party, no Bart Stupak and Evan Bayh resignations and drama; no rancid Obamacare as a vast open sore on his party, no Supreme Court case waiting to come up midcampaign; no unified, furious Republican party, no enraged independents lining up behind it, no Nancy Pelosi striding across the Capitol grounds with a grin on her face and an oversized gavel, an image that will live in the annals of political idiocy, a symbol of everything about the bill and its passage that people have come to despise.
If you want an explanation for the wave that drowned the House Democrats in 2010, you can do no better than return to that moment. Any good politician would have acted then to forestall at all costs the charade Pelosi and the Black Caucus staged, linking arms to evoke the bridge scene at Selma, then accusing the Tea Party of hurling racist insults, which were never proven or verified, and now appear not to be true.
A good politician would have heeded the words of John Kennedy, another fairly good politician, who made a practice when winning of giving the other side something to go home with, and of never making an opponent so angry he would do anything to secure one’s defeat. If Obama had gone with a small bill after Scott Brown’s election, he would have drained some of the rage out of the Tea Party, weakened the link between the GOP and the independents, removed a focal point for the anger of much of the country, and stopped the momentum of the wave of resentment and fury that rolled on, gathering steam every moment, to shatter his party in 2010. He lacked the sense common to all good politicians—shared by Ike, Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and others—that tells you that if A does X, it will cause B to do Y, whereas if A had done Z, B would have acted quite differently. A politician cannot survive lacking this instinct. But Obama is not a good politician, merely a good candidate, with no talent for governing. Thanks to a remarkable convergence of historical events, he was able to rise without that talent. And now he is paying the price.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, a columnist for the Washington Examiner, and the author of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.
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