Will They Still Love Him Tomorrow?
Amid the hot town halls of August, one’s mind keeps stumbling back to the astonishing presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Hadn’t finished one term in the Senate, 47 years old, former community organizer, and he had the mighty Clinton political machine against the ropes.
The contest was electrifying. At one point the election got wilder than a night at the World Wrestling Federation. Obama had flattened Hillary in the South Carolina primary. Hillary’s husband, unable to stand the hammering his wife was taking from the rookie, jumped over the turnbuckle and went upside Obama’s head with the charge that his South Carolina primary victory resembled Jesse Jackson’s wins in 1984 and 1988.
A political riot ensued. When order was restored, Ted Kennedy and JFK’s daughter had gone over to sit in Kid Obama’s corner.
He was so good in so many ways—poised and confident, radiating judgment and leadership—that enough independent voters transferred their allegiance to his candidacy to give him a 53-46 win over John McCain. Seven points. If he ever loses these voters, he’s toast. One has to wonder what they think of him now. Is Barack Obama still the wunderkind of limitless possibilities, or something else?
People who didn’t vote for Barack Obama will hoot how obvious it was to them, and should have been to their Obama-ga-ga friends, that he was always a stalking horse for a steroidal government. Maybe so, but there’s a lot of political complexity in 129 million votes.
For many voters, he appeared to be the Most Reasonable Man in politics. Obama enveloped and absorbed them. He could articulate an opponent’s point of view better than they could themselves. He knew, and that made people think their beliefs would always have a seat at his table.
He was moralistic, too. He made his agenda sound like a moral imperative. This worked. People here are attracted to a moral argument. The Rev. Wright mess could have been fatal. That he floated away from it with a grand moral speech on race in America bespoke a kind of unique personal magic. People thought they hadn’t seen anyone like Barack Obama stand for high office in a long time, so they voted for him.
But some are falling off the train. The president’s approval rating has dropped close to 50% from just over 60%. It’s early in a presidency to be dropping fast toward 50. Part of this is health care, but something else is going on here.
Big as the health-care proposal is, the White House might have gotten it easily as a standalone piece of legislation, given the congressional majorities and Obama’s reservoir of goodwill. But health care arrived in late May as a trillion-pound federal elephant in an Obama house that was looking like a Noah’s ark of every known species of federal spending: the $800 billion public-works stimulus, the deficit-busting $3.5 trillion budget (and now Treasury’s Tim Geithner wants Congress to lift the debt limit above $12.1 trillion), the grandiose cap-and-trade bill that foundered when Democratic coal states rebelled, the U.S. engulfment of the auto industry, the tax time bombs.
If you are a very liberal Democrat, a public union leader or a progressive left-winger from the blogosphere that raised millions for the Obama candidacy, this is all good (incredibly, some of them mope he’s been too cautious).
But to an independent voter or moderate Democrat, President Everyman is starting to look like a salesman for the superstate. One keeps waiting for the president to give this swath of his non-statist constituency something to hang onto. Instead, they see liberal Democrats pistol-whipping the Blue Dog dissenters with nary a peep of objection from the world’s most reasonable man.
It’s early. A lot of Mr. Obama’s centrist admirers are no doubt willing to wait for their moderate man to emerge. I don’t think that will ever happen.
The moderates have nearly no presence in the administration, its agenda, or the congressional leadership. Maybe Larry Summers, on paper. The president likes to talk to moderates, but he doesn’t ask too many to work for him. The internal exile of Paul Volcker speaks volumes. Obama can’t keep the moderate-man conceit going indefinitely.
Barack Obama’s election-victory margin is a slim base built on hopes and dreams. His approval is in decline. The hopes and the approval are going to evaporate so long as the content of his policies continues to uncouple from the persona he put across as a candidate. Ironically, the same thing happened to Obama’s favorite punching bag, George W. Bush, who entered as a conservative standard-bearer and then declined as the personality of his presidency on domestic policy lost focus. A lot of the Bush base drifted away. It can happen here.
If they get a big win on the health-care bill, none of this matters. Then the Obama persona of campaign 2008 can reemerge to relive the independents’ impossible dreams in 2012. But from the looks of the last two weeks, they’re not winning.
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