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Overrated

Rumors of Barack Obama’s political skill have been greatly exaggerated.

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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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.

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