The last few weeks of polling data have been so bad for Barack Obama that pundits have begun speculating whether the president might simply decide not to run for a second term in 2012. Still, many question whether Obama could truly bring himself to walk away from the world's most powerful executive position, even if it became clear that he couldn't win in 2012 — and that his presence on the ticket might damage Democrats running in Senate and House races below him on the ticket.
However, the real question is whether Obama has essentially quit already.
Obama has offered two major proposals this month in an attempt to change the narrative, to reverse the perception that his presidency is floundering with the poor economy. The first proposal deals with job creation, which is how most Americans gauge economic success. The president had not offered any new thoughts on job creation since the first stimulus package, instead issuing a series of predictions that massive job creation was just around the corner. Vice President Joe Biden spent the spring of 2010 talking about a "Summer of Recovery" that never arrived, and by the summer of 2011, job creation stopped entirely — with zero net jobs created in August.
That put pressure on the president to come up with a new plan, and the White House started generating plenty of buzz by hyping Obama's work in August for a new plan in September. They raised expectations for a game-changer by insisting on unveiling the plan at a joint session of Congress. Instead of offering a new plan, however, Obama gave an ambiguous sketch of a plan. It took the White House several more days to actually deliver the proposal to Capitol Hill, along with its $447 billion price tag.
The president has more than a year to go before the next election, but Obama has stopped governing and has shifted entirely to campaign mode.
The plan itself broke no new ground. Indeed, it closely resembles the 2009 stimulus bill, with its mix of infrastructure spending, temporary tax breaks, and another round of bailouts for states. But if the rehashed jobs plan was a passive disappointment, Obama's new deficit reduction plan is an aggressive partisan attack — the very kind that Obama blasted in his joint-session speech earlier in the month. Obama warned his political opponents that voters wouldn't wait for an election 14 months away to deliver solutions, and that Democrats and Republicans had to work together now to solve the big problems facing the nation:
"Already, we're seeing the same old press releases and tweets flying back and forth. Already, the media has proclaimed that it's impossible to bridge our differences. And maybe some of you have decided that those differences are so great that we can only resolve them at the ballot box. But know this: The next election is 14 months away. And the people who sent us here — the people who hired us to work for them — they don't have the luxury of waiting 14 months. "
Instead of working with Republicans to craft a deficit-reduction plan that could pass Congress, Obama instead filled his with tax hikes that even his own party rejected in 2009 and 2010 in the effort to fund Obama's signature health-care overhaul bill. Our colleague David Frum calls it a "stunt" that would derail economic growth, if it ever had a prayer of passing the House. Democratic strategist Mark Penn wonders at The Huffington Post why Obama would want to turn himself into another Walter Mondale — and also why Obama passed on the opportunity to work on comprehensive tax reform with Republicans rather than get stuck in "the thicket of class warfare." Why not work on co-opting a big Republican issue as Bill Clinton did with welfare reform, Penn asks, and seize the mantle of leadership?
Penn wonders why Obama didn't think to work with House Republicans on deficit reduction, but he might have asked why Obama didn't bother to work with Senate Democrats on the jobs bill, either. The White House apparently forgot to consult with its own allies in the upper chamber when writing the rerun of the 2009 stimulus bill, only to discover to their embarrassment that it won't pass the Senate. At least six Senate Democrats have gone on the record in the media expressing opposition to passing it in its current form, and not just purple-state incumbents up for tough re-election fights (like Joe Manchin and Robert Casey), but also those in relatively safe seats like Tom Carper (Delaware) and Barbara Mikulski (Maryland). Even Dianne Feinstein in solid-blue California talked to the media about her concerns over the cost and effectiveness of Obama's plan.
Obama mailed in both proposals rather than engage in the hard work of governance. If Obama had any interest in actually passing his deficit-reduction plan, he would not have filled it with tax hikes that have floated around the Beltway for years — and which both Republicans and Democrats have rejected in the past. The jobs bill was even less creative than his approach to deficit reduction, cribbed from a failed and costly exercise in central economic control. Obama didn't bother to put much effort into either because he has no intention of doing the hard work needed to accomplish actual deficit reduction or improve the job-creation climate. The president has more than a year to go before the next election, but Obama has stopped governing and has shifted entirely to campaign mode. This is what it looks like when a president quits.