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12.11.09 12:36 AM ET

Hillary Was Right

Barack Obama wasn’t ready to be president, and he better figure out what he’s doing before it’s too late.

As the first year of the Obama era draws to a close, the president is losing the battle for America's hearts and minds. It's hard not to feel some sympathy for him, given the disastrous state of the economy when he took office and the many smoldering international crises that keep flaring up. President Obama's predecessors deserve plenty of blame for his woes—as Obama and his advisers never tire of reminding us. But their not-so-subtle digs at President George W. Bush paper over their own unforced errors.

The most glaring and consequential unforced error came in how the Obama administration framed the health-care reform debate. The mantra of "bending the cost curve" was tailor-made for conservative and moderate intellectuals who preach the gospel of entitlement reform. If passing health-care reform were fundamentally about winning over the think tanks, the green-eyeshade approach might have made sense. But of course the real goal was to overcome the fear of the large majority of Americans who are insured and who deeply, desperately, and sometimes irrationally oppose anything that would change the status quo. A large number of those Americans are elderly Medicare recipients, and they vote in large numbers.

Voters over 65 were largely immune to the Obama magic during the campaign, and the prospect of trimming Medicare to help finance coverage expansion didn't sit well. My guess is that President Obama figured emphasizing cost cutting would help bring a handful of Republicans to the table. Yet he failed to reckon with the fact that politicians of all stripes will abandon ideological commitments on a matter of political survival. So-called small-government conservatives in the House spent the Bush years fighting for federal spending directed at projects in their own districts. When elderly voters started calling in about the threat to Medicare, virtually all congressional Republicans simultaneously discovered that protecting Medicare from spending cuts was a bedrock principle of true Americanism. Again, one can complain about Republican hypocrisy, but it's easy to imagine Democratic incumbents engaging in similar ideological acrobatics to gain an advantage. Not foreseeing this outcome was a serious lapse in judgment that very nearly derailed President Obama's entire domestic agenda—and it still could. More to the point, the Republican revival all but guarantees that the White House will have to rely on not-so-reliable Blue Dogs. Right now, Democrats can cut deals without leaning too heavily on moderate and conservative Democrats from the South and West. But if they lose 20 or more seats next year, that won't be an option. That means goodbye cap-and-trade and a lot more.

The other big unforced error was over Afghanistan, where the president made the very bad decision to freeze out Hamid Karzai early in his term. This move deepened Karzai's paranoia, which led to the ballot-stuffing that made Afghanistan's 2009 elections a sham. There is no doubt that Afghanistan was going south well before President Obama came on the scene, and it is clear that he's dedicated to turning the situation around. Yet he made matters worse during the crucial early months of this year.

It is the unforced errors that raise the question of whether Hillary Clinton was right back in 2008 when she argued that the White House was no place for "on-the-job training." At the time, Clinton's stinging attacks on Obama's relative inexperience infuriated the insurgent candidate's supporters, who damned the Clinton machine for its savage bullying. Yet there was an obvious truth behind Clinton's rhetoric. As a major player during her husband's administration, she had an opportunity to learn from the amateurish mistakes made during the Clinton White House, including a callous disregard for key congressional allies and the country's moderate-to-conservative temperament on contentious social issues. More to the point, the army of ex-Clinton staffers were the ones who wouldn't need on-the-job training. They already knew how to staff bureaucracies and how to make government work. Even now, a number of critical administration jobs remain unfilled. Republican opposition has something to do with this, but overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress make this excuse more than a little unconvincing.

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The saving grace of the Obama administration so far has been the willingness of Clinton-era insiders like Gene Sperling and Leon Panetta and Clinton herself to join the fold. The almost completely unheralded Sperling has played a vital role at the Treasury Department, where he serves as Tim Geithner's right-hand man—an impressive sacrifice of personal ego for someone who had every right to expect a top-tier job. Perhaps the most important Clinton veteran serving President Obama is Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, whose kneecap-busting ruthlessness makes him one of the few Democrats that Republicans truly fear. To be sure, it's not obvious that Rahm's reign of terror is an entirely good thing. We don't know exactly why Greg Craig, the now-former White House counsel, was essentially ousted from office, but well-founded rumors suggest that he was the victim of a Rahmian plot that has left a bad taste in the mouth of the more idealistic liberals serving in the administration.

The good news for the Obama White House is that there is plenty of time for a comeback, and the Republican opposition has an extremely steep hill to climb. This week was a very strong one for the president. His jobs speech demonstrated that he is flexible enough to shift gears when necessary. And his Nobel address was a masterful defense of America's role as the guarantor of global peace and stability. It was a speech any president would have been proud to give, and it's one that Democrats and Republicans have already applauded. So it is certainly possible that President Obama is finally getting the hang of the most difficult job in the world. The question is whether or not it's too late.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.