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He Doesn't Feel Your Pain

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Obama’s political problem boils down to the difficulty he has speaking to and for middle America. This problem became evident during the middle of the primary battle with Hillary Clinton. And it could have seriously damaged his candidacy against John McCain. But the onset of the financial crisis that fall, and McCain’s feeble response to it, along with his choice of Sarah Palin as vice president, highlighted Obama’s strongest asset in the eyes of voters--his intelligence--and reduced the importance of his lack of a common touch.

As president, however, Obama’s lack of engagement with middle America has come to the surface and has contributed to his decline in popularity. This shortcoming has been evident in his style and choice of venues--he gave his endorsement of Coakley on Sunday at Northeastern University, in Boston, rather than at a union hall or public auditorium in Worcester or Springfield. It is also evident in his choice of advisors and spokespeople and in the way he has framed his programs.

He chose the former head of the New York Fed, Timothy Geithner, to be his chief economic spokesman during a financial crisis that was widely seen as the product of Wall Street. And in developing and presenting his policies on the banks, he didn’t put the kind of conditions on taxpayer assistance that would have assured middle America that they weren’t giving handouts to the wealthy.

In the case of his health care plan, he did not really have a spokesman, but ceded the public face of the policy to the congressional leadership. Perhaps, he should have settled this year--when the recession heightened populist fears and resentments--for partial reforms that were more closely geared to the recession. Large reforms have usually occurred when the economy is on an upswing (1935,1964-5) and voters feel a fundamental security. But leave that aside.

Where Obama invited a voter backlash was by letting the burden of reducing health care costs appear to fall on senior citizens and those middle class workers who had acquired good health insurance through decades of union battles with management, and not on the insurance and drug companies. Obama ceded too much to the policy wonks who were devising intricate schemes to show they could cut the deficit. He took his eye of off the political imperative of keeping middle America in his corner.

Obama now clearly faces not just a recession and two wars, but a political crisis. He needs to adopt policies that will boost employment, but he may not have the political clout to do so. He needs to restore the public’s faith in his own leadership, but it’s not clear to me how he can accomplish that.

The last two Democratic presidents faced similar crises. After the Democrats got drubbed in the 1978 midterms, Jimmy Carter took exactly the wrong course. He replaced mediocre people with even more mediocre people. He allowed intramural squabbles to surface. He lost his focus and ended up blaming the American people for his political problems. Clinton, who had governed his first year as a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law graduate, rediscovered after November 1994 that he had been a successful governor of Arkansas. He governed for the remainder of his six years as the president of middle America, even resisting a furious attempt by Republicans to impeach him.

I am not sure how Obama can surmount this crisis. Obama does not seem, like Ronald Reagan or Clinton, to be a man of many faces. Even back in Chicago in the 1990s, it was clear that the man who had given up community organizing to become a lawyer and politician was more comfortable in Hyde Park than in Southeast or Northwest Chicago. Obama can try to make himself into a friend of Joe Sixpack and the enemy of Wall Street--he’s certainly trying to do so with his proposal to tax the big banks to pay for their bailout--but it’s not going to come naturally. Still, Obama has surprised his critics before, and perhaps (one hopes!) he will do so again.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


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