No Bounce for Obama

Obama has scored more early-term victories than anyone since LBJ. But it's because he declared war on his base while doing so that he'll still face a drubbing this fall.

07.17.10 7:54 AM ET

With the passage of the historic financial regulation bill, on top of the historic health-care reform bill, in addition to a nearly trillion-dollar stimulus bill, to say nothing of a truly significant nuclear arms reduction agreement with the Russians and a near miss on "cap and trade," it is pretty much impossible to argue against the notion that Barack Obama is already the most consequential Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. And yet not only has Obama's approval reached an all-time low for his (admittedly brief) presidency. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll public confidence in the president has hit a new low, unless you factor in the relative enthusiasm of both sides—and the money that's switching to the Republican side this time and then it is far, far worse. Jobs are not only not coming back. They are disappearing.

And people are justifiably frightened that they will be next.

Democrats shovel shit in their base’s face and tell them they had better act like they like it or face what Bundy called “the wild men in the wings.”

As of today, Democrats appear poised to lose both houses of Congress in the midterm elections to a Republican Party that does not even pretend to have a serious approach to governing, aside from its leader Sarah Palin's proud proclamation that it intends to be the party of "Hell, No." The editors of Politico, echoed by an almost embarrassingly copy-cat story in The New York Times, have set the terms of debate with the observation that Obama is "losing by winning."

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I've written earlier here that Obama's strategy had the potential for genius, both in terms of his running to "bring us together"—which was clearly what a majority of voters wanted after eight years of the divisiveness of Bush and Cheney—but also as a theme of governance. All he had to do was demonstrate sincerity in pursuit of bipartisanship, and when the Republicans refused to play ball, more in sorrow than in anger, shove the Democratic agenda down their throat. Surely the country would understand that we have terrible problems that needed to be addressed. And if conservatives were content merely to mouth ideological slogans while Obama and company rolled up their sleeves to do what needed to be done, then surely the administration would be rewarded for it at the polls.

Boy was I wrong. It turns out that Obama, advised primarily by Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, was so committed to his strategy of bipartisan governance that he insisted on pursuing it, not only at the expense of his campaign promises, but also of his own (and his party's) popularity. Holding his own ideologically disparate party together was difficult enough. But bringing along enough Republicans to demonstrate a good-faith effort—whether they ended up supporting him in the end or not—resulted in legislation that however historic, was so watered down by compromise with corporate lobbyists that it pissed off almost everyone and satisfied pretty much nobody.

Meanwhile, unnamed administration sources—at least according to Politico—have begun to lash out at the president's liberal base for being insufficiently enthusiastic about its accomplishments. Mike Allen and James VandeHei write of the "immaturity and impetuousness" of liberals who are "shocked and dismayed that Obama is governing as a self-protective politician first and a liberal second, even though that is also how he campaigned," adding, "White House officials are contemptuous of what they see as liberal lamentations unhinged from historical context or contemporary political realities."

This is rather rich. It wasn't so long ago, that liberals were being called "f------ retards" by Rahm Emanuel for refusing to get behind the president's compromises on health care. When they finally did, they were chastised for insufficient enthusiasm for a bill that they were instructed to hold their noses and support. Ditto financial regulation, which, in many respects, is a gift to Wall Street, not Main Street. And environmentalists, labor, and feminists have all received not merely nothing, but genuinely regressive rulings by the administration and told to take it and like it. That's when it can be bothered to notice that they exist at all. Dana Goldstein's story on the administration's gratuitous slap at feminists Friday is just one of an ongoing series.

To be fair, this is how almost all Democrats have governed since the days when Joe McCarthy terrorized the Truman administration. McGeorge "Mac" Bundy knew how to goad Lyndon Johnson deeper into Vietnam by explaining to his eager student that the "Goldwater crowd" was "more numerous, more powerful and more dangerous than the flea bite professors" complaining about the war. Republican presidents traditionally cater to their base or face the punishment. (See "Bush, George H.W.") Democrats shovel shit in their base's face and tell them they had better act like they like it or face what Bundy called "the wild men in the wings." And it usually works...

By now, those smart fellows in the White House must have figured out that however impressive their accomplishments are by historical standards—and they are—they do not come close to offering Democrats a sufficiently popular program to stave off a likely Republican landslide come November, not at least without a radical—miraculous actually—reversal in the current job situation. And yet, it is at least possible that this too was part of the plan, (or at least "Plan B"). After all, they got a great deal done in their first two years, but it was a hard slog. Bill Clinton, who did not manage a fraction of what Obama accomplished in his first two years, saw his political fortunes saved by losing a midterm election and inviting voters to imagine what it would be like to be governed by fire-breathing Newt Gingrich and company. This time, what with the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, John Boehner, and Joe Barton, Obama and company must be salivating at the moment when voters are finally forced to take a good hard look at what Paul Krugman nicely calls the "invincible ignorance" of the alternative. Having handily won re-election in 2012, he might be able to build on the legislative achievements of his first two years to take his place alongside FDR and LBJ in terms of genuinely transforming the way our government works. That's my theory, anyway.

In the meantime, the mavens of the media are going to continue to make arguments like, "Obama is not responsible for the leak, and, realistically, there was little he could do to expedite the repair. But for an irritable public, the Gulf Coast debacle was a reminder—horribly timed from Obama's perspective—that Big Business and Big Government are often a problem, not a solution." The arguments are made, without anyone being able to make any sense whatever of them—except that whatever the hell Obama is doing, it stinks, and he should cut it out right now and do the opposite… whatever that is.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.