One day in the winter of 2005, I was in a Senate hallway when the new guy from Illinois arrived for a vote. Sen. Barack Obama—pop-star charisma, limitless possibility—knew his own allure. Three years later, of course, the nation knew it, too. He won the presidency by the largest popular-vote margin since 1988, bringing with him the largest Democratic majorities in Congress since 1993.
But that was then. Obama’s approval rating is weak, and many Democrats now accept the conventional wisdom that they may lose the House, even the Senate, in November. Some reasons why were unavoidable. The messianic hope that Obama inspired was destined to dissipate almost as quickly as it arose. There are pendulum swings in politics; Democrats, having taken 55 Republican House seats the last two cycles, were bound to concede some. Most important, however, kitchen-table realities are as grim as, or worse than, when Obama took the oath. “Democrats are overextended in marginal districts, and the economy is still in bad shape,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “Those two factors are the only ones that really matter.” But aren’t there things Obama & Co. could have done differently? Election Day is still seven weeks away—but it’s not too early for a “pre-mortem”:
Obama misread his mandate. “Obama’s 2008 victory was a personal one,” says Bill Galston, an adviser to President Clinton. “It wasn’t a vote for a more expansive view of the role and reach of government.” The stimulus, on its own, wasn’t the problem. It was the thousands of easy-to-caricature pages of new legislation that came on top of it, all of which revived the Republicans’ “big government” narrative.
Obama—an overachiever, the guy who fills up a second blue book on the extra-credit question—tried to do it all. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, eager to please the new boss, declared before Inauguration Day: “Never allow a crisis to go to waste. There are opportunities to do big things.” But in doing big things, they failed to fully attend to (and be seen attending to) the immediate economic needs of the middle class. “There hasn’t been the laserlike focus on the economy there could have, and should have, been,” says a top Democratic strategist who declined to be named criticizing the White House.
Take health-care reform. Ten years hence, perhaps, it will be seen as the signal achievement of the Obama years. But for now, it’s an unpopular law that took a divisive year to enact, that liberals and conservatives loathe, that is full of bureaucratic and fiscal IEDs, and that drained attention from dealing with the economy. If you disagree, look at Obama’s speech last week in Cleveland. In 47 minutes, he mentioned health care for about 25 seconds.
NEWSWEEK's Howard Fineman discusses whether the state of the economy will create a huge Democratic loss during the midterm elections., Video muted: click volume for sound
Obama misread the clock. Obama was warned before the election that Republicans would try to slow-walk his every nominee, but he never figured out a way around the problem. The administration was slow to staff up, which hampered everything, especially the impact of the stimulus. “Shovel ready” projects identified in the spring of 2009 are often still “unshoveled” because officials aren’t in place to approve them, says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “The fact is,” he says, “Obama never really ran anything, even legislatively.” Neither has his closest adviser, message guru David Axelrod.
This might explain why Obama blew so much capital so quickly. In the spring of 2009, the White House strong-armed House Democrats into voting for a cap-and-trade environmental bill, even though it was clear the Senate wouldn’t go along. With this one early vote, the president exhausted his chits with Blue Dog, swing-state moderates and the coal-staters, who were then reluctant to help him on other matters, like the tax changes he wants, and who are refusing now to defend him or the party back home.
Obama misread his surroundings. The president is an agreeable guy, but aloof, and not one who likes to come face to face with the enemy. Sure, GOP leaders were laying traps for him from the start. And it was foolish to assume Mitch McConnell or John Boehner would play ball. But Obama doesn’t really know Republicans, and he doesn’t seem to want to take their measure. (Nor has he seemed all that curious about what makes Democratic insiders tick.) It’s the task of the presidency to cajole people, including your enemies, into doing what they don’t want to do if it is good for the country. Did Obama think he could eschew the rituals of politics—that all he had to do was invoke His Hopeness to bring people aboard? The president hasn’t invited the House minority leader over to talk, and Obama had his first private Oval Office chat with Mc Connell only last month. Better late than never, but too late to do any good this cycle.