Careful, wondering, happy, elated, satisfied, questioning, disappointed, confused, nervous, shocked, angry, furious. Never before has a US President created such a torrent of emotions among his (former) political supporters. But that is exactly what Obama has done. Since his inauguration, Obama has pushed away many of his closest allies in the electoral playing field. And so far, he isn’t showing his people how he intends to get them back into his fold.
“What the @*&%^ is he doing?!” That’s the gist of this, this, this and this article, all written by pundits who are – or used to be – either some of Obama’s most ardent supporters, or experienced political journalists.
They all express either confusion or outright anger with the way Obama has been running the White House ever since he moved in, almost two years ago. True, since his inauguration he has come through on an admirable number of campaign promises, as PolitiFact clearly shows with its ‘Obameter‘. Of the altogether 506 promises made by him during his campaign, he has delivered on 123, compromised on 40, broke 24, 84 are stalled, 232 are ‘in the works’ and 3 are ‘not yet rated’. (This blog has no clue what the last category entails.)
That’s baffling. There are not many presidents who can claim to have pushed through so many policy initiatives, and then I haven’t even touched on the kind of initiatives. Health care and financial regulation reforms stand out as historical achievements.
Yet Obama’s administration has allowed the opposition, the GOP, to frame these reforms in the most negative terms possible. Obama’s popularity has been in a free fall for more than six months as his political opponents succesfully painted his reforms as evil. The Democrats lost the majority in the House of Representatives and several Democrats in the Senate are unsure who to support now that they’re polling at historical lows in their own home states.
A shocking change from two years ago, when the GOP got shellacked and was declared all but dead, while the Democrats surged ahead on a wave of change.
Or did they? Was it really a rollercoaster for radical change? Did all the Democrats campaigning for the House and the Senate prescribe to Obama’s proposals for health care and environmental protection reforms? No. They were divided on the plans; some simply remained silent, others — Blue Dogs — pandered to the centre-right by refusing to commit themselves. It would therefore have been better to have some big names work Congress, as suggested.
Obama’s first big mistake was that he didn’t mold the Democratic Class of ’08 into a tight coalition that really supported his platform of change. Instead, he left them enough room to walk out on him.
His second mistake wasn’t really a mistake, but the dark side of a choice. Obama knew that some of his reforms, and notably health care, would not sit well with many people. So he decided to ram it through while he still had the votes for it in Congress. He knew it was a risk that could turn against him. Now it turns out that he risked a lot more. By being bipartisan, he wanted to achieve two goals.
First, the political center would appreciate the reforms and support it. For this, he had to ignore both the leftists in his own party, and work the GOP to have it ignore their right wing. That worked, to an extent. But when the dust settled, he appears to have missed one searing truth that the polls didn’t show. Many people wanted better health care insurance laws while lowering their monthly payments. But most of them were never really for widening coverage. That motive was underestimated by Obama and his people. The GOP did notice the dynamic and went straight for that argument in their rhetoric.
Second, he figured that by showing that he was the ‘get things done’ President, respect and support would automatically follow. That, after all, was a major motive behind his message of ‘change’. He said he would do things differently, and he believed people would actually follow him.
And they might have, if only that pesky unemployment, the bad economy and real worries about government deficits hadn’t distracted them.
Now it is time for Obama to reassure his supporters and enthuse his base, or what’s left of it. Because if he doesn’t, if he refuses to see that change in policies does not necessarily equate to a change in the way politics is done, he may find himself out of a job in February 2012, with all his reforms being unwound within a year. Then all will have been for naught.
He should lay out his plan for his reelection, and he should do it soon.
(Image: Creative Commons)