“How could the nation have gone from hope to gloom in less than two years?”
“The president and his colleagues know that it’s not really working.”
Barack Obama? No—assessments in The New York Times of Ronald Reagan and his presidency during his second year in office. Fortunately for the authors, these and similar verdicts are now hidden in the recesses of history and the attics of the Internet. But such verdicts are a powerful reminder of the perils of pack prognostication at a time when the pack has circled this president and variously proclaimed him remote, out of touch, and—a word we never thought to see applied to Obama—“incompetent.”
The immediate provocation is the oil spill, but the story line has been brewed before—the economic recovery act that was bogged down in Congress; the health bill that was doomed by Scott Brown’s election; the Tea Party movement that’s proving to be more tidal eddy than tidal wave except on the shrunken beachheads of Republican primaries; and the Wall Street reform that’s too hot or too cold, too much or too little, too soft on Fannie and Freddie, or too hard on derivatives.
And then there are the inconsequential obsessions of the insiders—the White House job “offers” to upstart Senate challengers Joe Sestak and Andrew Romanoff. We’re shocked, shocked to learn that politics has been going on in the place where Abraham Lincoln dangled appointments and patronage to squeeze the 13th Amendment banning slavery through a recalcitrant Congress.
While the picture of a beleaguered, feckless Obama spreads as relentlessly as the oil on the troubled waters of the Gulf, perhaps we ought to pause and ask what all the sound and fury will amount to once the present worries of the columnists have faded with their newsprint and the clang of the cable combat has shifted to new battlefields. You don’t have to downplay the disaster in the Gulf to doubt the instant analysis of a failing or faltering Obama presidency.
Take Maureen Dowd’s lament in the Times that Obama too conspicuously lacks the empathy of Bill Clinton. Public displays of empathy are ephemeral things, as the Clinton record shows; they don’t cover a single uninsured child, reform student loans so many more young Americans will be able to afford college, or create enough economic stimulus to avert a depression and reverse a recession. Empathy won’t rein in financial abuses or end "don’t ask, don’t tell." That’s what Obama has done and is doing—and it’s historic progress on a scale we haven’t seen from any progressive president in generations.
Nor do you have to cry publicly to convince the public that you care. Obama seems uncomfortable with manufactured events that command press but don’t solve problems or advance larger purposes. He’ll do the events, sometimes, but he doesn’t revel in them.
Is this a failure of presidential leadership? And is the oil spill Obama’s Katrina—breakthrough evidence not only of disconnection but of incompetence? The country apparently doesn’t think so despite the partisan charges and a commentariat that’s fanning exactly that fear among Democrats. Obama’s approval ratings have risen recently, driven by an economic upturn for which he is responsible. He couldn’t “fix” the oil spill by fiat or flyover, and Americans know it. From Bush and Cheney he inherited a regulatory system that didn’t regulate—and Americans know that too.
The BP well can be stanched with technology that only the oil industry possesses. The Coast Guard can monitor and direct; the Justice Department can investigate. Sending in the Marines would do ... precisely nothing. After the crisis, the system will change in many ways—and Obama will drive that change. He will revive the languishing energy bill—and may succeed in navigating the offshore political shoals and passing it. This would be another landmark achievement and a far more telling test of presidential leadership.
Democrats looking to the midterms should pay more attention to progress and polls than to pundits. They should look to Friday’s jobs report to gauge their prospects in November, when they could lose far fewer seats than conventional wisdom now assumes. The “green shoots” of recovery may finally be extending to the grass roots. According to Gallup, the Democratic Party’s approval rating is up 2 percent since March, to 43 percent. That’s not something to celebrate—unless you compare it with the Republicans, who are at 36 percent, five points below their low during the impeachment-mad month of December 1998.
Democratic chances are also rising because Republicans are stumbling. At a fundamental level, the cause is an exhaustion of ideas. After Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy and Bush’s war on a WMD-less Iraq, the GOP has collapsed into undisguised negativism and barely disguised nativism. An anti-government ideology hardly fits a time when voters want a crackdown on Wall Street speculation—and even if they want more drilling, they also want more controls on it.
The anti-immigrant rhetoric is a mortal threat to the Republican future. To retake the White House, they need at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. They are headed for somewhere in the vicinity of 20 percent. And that may seal the doom of some of this year’s most promising Republican candidates. In California, eBay’s Meg Whitman, under pressure from a more true-believing rival for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, was forced to put her immigrant-bashing credentials on display in television ads featuring former Gov. Pete Wilson, whose own Hispanic-baiting campaign in 1994 helped place California’s electoral votes beyond the reach of Republicans in every subsequent presidential race. One Republican strategist confides that he’s seen polls now showing Whitman 10 points or more behind Democrat Jerry Brown, who has so far spent a pittance compared to her $80 million bid for the prize.
Similar troubles for the GOP are gathering elsewhere as Tea Partiers and the far right rush to fill the void of constructive ideas with nutty nostrums and demands for ideological purity. Thus moderate Tom Campbell, who could defeat Sen. Barbara Boxer in California in November, won’t get the chance. He’ll lose the GOP primary to the more conservative and controversial Carly Fiorina, who in turn will lose to Boxer in the fall. Likewise, the once-safe GOP Senate seat in Kentucky isn’t safe anymore because of the party’s radical right nominee Rand Paul.
There is a cry in the angry, narrowed precincts of the GOP to banish “RINOs”—Republicans in Name Only—who might have dared, for example, to support extended unemployment compensation. A lot of the resulting primary winners may find that they are the real “RINOs”—Republicans in Nomination Only, barred by their own extremism and daffiness from entering the House or Senate.
Beyond the oil disaster and the easy distractions, the truer political story of this season may be one of economic and Democratic recovery—and Republican self-destruction. It’s been easy not to notice that—to treat the passing and the predictable as portents. And one of the most predictable realities is that every presidency has to deal with the unpredictable; the coming of any new era has its hard passages. The gift that is required then is to stand against the winds of the moment, to stay on course and steer the deflections to your defining purpose.
One can quarrel with this White House’s political malapropisms, or wish that the president emoted more or held more press conferences. But it’s hard to quarrel with the notion that: “One of his magics is looking to the future.” That’s what was said of Ronald Reagan as he finished his second term, six years after the premature verdict that hope was gone. So I’m convinced it will be with Barack Obama. And because he has that magic, underneath the clouds, he’s shaping a new future for America.