Seldom have so many observers from so many precincts in the press and so many points on the political spectrum converged so unanimously on a verdict writing off a president — except, of course, when their counterparts called Ronald Reagan a "one-year phenomenon" and declared Bill Clinton "irrelevant" after the first midterms of their tenures.
This time, the candidate with the magic in 2008 has become the imperiled and, in the more partisan accounts, the mortally wounded president of 2010. Predictably, Republicans characterize him as a spent and repudiated force whose major achievements will be rolled back forthwith. Others who were once fervent supporters have suggested, before and after the dark passage of the midterm elections, that he and his unhappy band can't emote, communicate, set priorities, weave a narrative, or even schedule a foreign trip.
Thus comes the easy criticism of his visit to India and elsewhere in Asia right after the results were in: He should have canceled to stay home and address the damage. By doing precisely what? Abruptly calling off the journey would not only have damaged U.S. relations with some of our most critical trading and anti-terrorist partners, who countenanced delay when health reform hung in the balance, but also would have ratified the notion of a depleted and disabled presidency. Those gifted with 20/20 hindsight may concede that much, but then as amateur schedulers they conclude that the White House never should have chosen this time, knowing what was in store politically on Nov. 2.
In any event, Obama will be back by the time Congress gathers in Washington for the lame-duck session, with Republicans mainlining tea while plotting their plans for inaction, reaction, and a recession, which they devoutly wish will still be painfully felt in 2012. The president will be there to negotiate with an opposition that appears intent on adhering to JFK's warning that it's impossible to bargain with those who insist that "What's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable."
Some of the criticisms of Obama and his operation are fair. For example, while rescuing the middle class and the nation from economic catastrophe, the administration also came across as more interested in securing the solvency of the banking houses on Wall Street — which was essential — than in saving family homes — which is not only a matter of economic justice, but an essential foundation for sustained economic recovery.
But other criticisms are mere covers for an ideological agenda, left or right. What does it mean to say the president should have worked solely on jobs, jobs, jobs to the exclusion of health or financial reform? What more could he have done beyond passing the largest stimulus bill in world history?
Yes, he could have reinforced an image of economic concern by giving a monthly televised report to the nation, explaining the progress, the shortfalls, and his vision for the future. And he could have drawn sharper dividing lines in the 2010 campaign on tax cuts — "for the few or for you" — rather than ineffectual appeals to "go forward not back," when countless Americans wouldn't mind going back to full employment, fully valued homes, and fully funded 401k plans.
But doing less on health and financial regulation to prove he cared more about jobs wouldn't have created a single additional job — and it would have forfeited the chance of a generation to reform health care and left America and the world more vulnerable to another financial meltdown. Indeed, Obama's conventionally scorned refusal to postpone the health issue until his second two years has surely been vindicated: What chance would reform have now?
Barack Obama has done great things and in the end probably will be a great president. 2010 was not a great campaign for him or for the Democrats. They will have to do better. But the truth of the immediate past, and the shape of the future, involve more than tactics, message, and expressions of empathy. Ask a simple question: What would the outcome have been on Nov. 2 if the unemployment rate was 6 percent? As James Carville famously said, "It's the economy stupid." The logic is compelling; the history proves it — and together they disprove the Republican verdict that the midterm losses were a repudiation of Obama's agenda.
In pursuing that misconception, a tea-stained GOP may manifest an obsession with repealing or defunding the health bill, in the process alienating the majority of Americans, much as the party did when it pursued the impeachment of Bill Clinton to the exclusion of progress on education, Social Security, and the environment — the pressing concerns of that time.
There may be minor changes in the health legislation, especially in the provisions on small-business reporting. Obama supports this. But the Republicans won't have enough votes in the Senate to override a presidential veto. They could close down the government in a budget battle over defunding, which would have only a marginal effect on an entitlement program largely insulated from the annual appropriations process. For this, would the GOP really plunge into the Newt Gingrich abyss again?
The GOP campaigned with a pledge — but not a plan — to fix the economy. But fixing it is the last thing Republicans actually intend to do. Protracted unemployment raises their job prospects for 2012, from Capitol Hill to the White House — and they know it. But their own contradictory call to cut off the stimulus by cutting the deficit while simultaneously extending George W. Bush's tax cuts may undo them here too. There will be a compromise that preserves the deficit-fueling tax cuts, at least for now. But on the other side of the balance sheet, the GOP cannot prevail on deep reductions in programs from education to public safety, let alone Social Security and Medicare — which is why the party has never dared to specify cuts, preferring to march under the tattered banner of waste, fraud, and abuse.
By limiting the original stimulus and blocking any major addition to it, Republicans have delayed and slowed recovery. Finally, there are signs that the pace may be picking up. According to The New York Times, the chief economist at High Frequency Economics, who forecast the downturn, sees bank lending gaining steam and foresees rising job growth, with 2011 "a true turning point for unemployment." Paul Krugman thinks not, and for once Republicans will try to make him right. But what if they're wrong? The politics of “no” worked, but maybe only for a while. It will be the economy in 2012 — and it's the GOP that could prove to be stupid.
The great persuader will be back — almost as soon as he's back from Asia. The White House operation will improve; but most decisively, so may the GDP. The next two years will be a bumpy ride, but Barack Obama can renew his presidency — and even without the safety net of an extremist GOP nominee — in re-election. Then like Reagan, glibly consigned to the dust bin as a one-year wonder after the 1982 midterms, he may yet ultimately realign American politics.
One of the most astute people I've ever met in politics has observed: "You're never as smart as you look when you win, and never as dumb as you look when you lose." That's true now of this president, his strategists, and his party. When things in politics get bad, they tend to get worse — until they start to get better.