Obama Lost, Obama Found

Illustration by Jason Lee

The Thursday before last, President Barack Obama came home from his eight-day trip to Asia and received a welcome even frostier than the subfreezing temperatures that had greeted him in Beijing. In the House of Representatives, the populist Democrat Peter DeFazio of Oregon was calling for the heads of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers on a pair of pikes. The Congressional Black Caucus was thwarting the progress of Obama’s financial-reform agenda, on the grounds that the economic policies of the first African-American president were callous toward African-Americans. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, furious about provisions regarding illegal immigrants in the Senate health-care bill, was casting blame on the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. The next morning, the front page of the Washington Post featured a story with the blaring headline “Angry Congress Lashes Out at Obama,” but which might as well have been titled “What a Difference a Year Makes.”

It hasn’t actually been quite that long, of course, but the memory of Obama’s joyous inauguration seems distant indeed—as the lofty image of a candidate with such potential that he seemed to walk on air has given way to the reality of a president neck-deep in a pile of epochal problems. “Think about what we were handed,” says White House senior adviser and First Friend Valerie Jarrett. “Two wars. A global economic meltdown. The largest deficit in the nation’s history. A health-care crisis. A public-education crisis. An energy crisis. And a crisis in how we’ve been perceived around the world.” Jarrett sighs. “It is what it is.”

In coping with this grim inheritance, Obama has brought to bear great aplomb and fortitude, and his achievements have been considerable. Together with his team and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, he has helped prevent the economy from tumbling into the abyss. He has changed the tone of America’s relationships abroad and begun the restoration of the country’s global standing. At considerable political cost, he has undertaken the reformation of a health-care system desperately and urgently in need of it. Compared with his predecessor, he is a model of rationality and rigor. Compared with the extant Republican alternatives—the appalling burlesque sideshows that are Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney—he occupies an entirely different rung on the political and moral evolutionary ladder. And yet, for all of that, there’s no denying this fact: You’d have to be stone deaf not to hear the air hissing out of the Obama balloon.

For the first time in his presidency, Obama’s job-approval ratings have slipped below 50 percent. The American public, with its chronic impatience and a collective attention span measured in angstroms, demands quick fixes—but Obama has none to offer. The Republican right has been feral and effective in painting its foe as an unholy amalgam of Hitler, Stalin, and Cornel West. And the Democratic left, always delusional about the degree to which Obama was a fellow traveler, has been sorely disappointed to discover that he’s not a combination of Ted Kennedy, Norman Thomas, and Chuck D.

Yet the emerging doubts about Obama among even his most ardent and sensible fans are deeper and more nuanced than that. After 300-plus days in office, the president remains, for many of his supporters, a worryingly indistinct figure. One whose pragmatic sensibility is crystal clear but bedrock convictions are still blurry. And whose White House has proved less than fully adept at the marriage of politics and policy, preferring all too often to fall back on their boss’s charm and dazzle to advance the ball upfield.

“I have no idea what they believe,” a leading House Democrat and Obama ally told me recently when I asked if he could define the administration’s governing philosophy. “I know that their governing strategy seems to be, ‘Don’t worry, the big guy will make it all right in the end.’ They have the sublime sense that they don’t have to do all that much to plan events, or to come up with the message for what they’re doing, or to line up support, because whenever they need to, they can just put Mike Tyson in the ring. And I think (a) it’s wrong, and (b) it’s a bad way to run a White House.”

The limits of that approach will be sorely tested in the period now about to unfold before us. Starting this week, Obama will unveil or have forced upon him a series of pivotal decisions—on Afghanistan (with his big speech set for Tuesday night), health care, the economy, and the deficit. The choices entailed will be hard and clarifying, doing more to define his tenure than any he has confronted so far. And he will make them while skating on thinner ice with both his party and the electorate at large than hardly anyone imagined possible on that frigid and fantabulous January day when he was sworn in. The political perils of this period will be immense, but so will the opportunity: for the president finally to erect on the foundation of the Obama brand something more vital—a working vision of Obamaism; for him to right the ship, recapture the magic, reinflate the balloon; and in the process, to reaffirm the reasons why so many of us invested such hope and faith in him in the first place.

Illustration by Jason Lee

The precariousness of Obama’s position should be no mystery to his people, for rarely has there been a collection of political talent more attentive to public-opinion research. Though Obama, like countless candidates before him, promised to govern “not by polls but by principle,” his campaign employed six pollsters and probably conducted more surveys and focus groups than that of any presidential aspirant in history. Most every Wednesday night since Obama took up residency at 1600, David Axelrod, another of his senior advisers and his longtime message guru, has convened a handful of those same number-crunchers to run through the data they are avidly (and constantly) collecting across the country.

The results of Obama’s private polling are a closely guarded secret, but it’s hard to imagine that they vary much from what the public research, which is remarkably consistent, shows. The central dynamic in play was summed up neatly in mid-November by the folks at Quinnipiac University. In the same poll that first found that Obama’s approval rating had slipped below the median, fully 74 percent of voters said that they like him as a person, while only 47 percent approve of his policies. “This is a country that … given our problems, had a long rope for the president,” the Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who along with Democrat Peter Hart, runs the NBC–Wall Street Journal poll, said at a conference recently. “They want a successful presidency … [but] there are really growing concerns and doubts.”

The specifics of those qualms come through loud and clear in other national polls, which peg Obama’s support at below 50 percent on virtually every significant issue facing the country: the economy, unemployment, Afghanistan, Iraq, health care, immigration, and the deficit. Equally troubling, Obama’s overall job-disapproval ratings are now in the mid-40s; since Dwight Eisenhower, the only president with numbers that high at this early stage in his first term was (gulp) Bill Clinton.

Historically, it’s true that disapproval ratings almost always move in lockstep with the state of the economy, and with the unemployment rate in particular. But even beyond Obama’s tremulous ratings on non-economic issues, there are other warning signs lurking in the digits. According to Gallup, a year ago, in the wake of Obama’s election, a roughly equal number of voters expected him to pursue “mostly moderate” and “mostly liberal” policies. More recently, 54 percent say that he has governed from the left, with just 34 percent saying he’s done so from the center. In the same poll, the percentage of people that believe Obama is keeping his campaign promises has fallen 17 percent since April, from 65 to 48—a perception shared to a similar degree among Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

The persistence of Obama’s sky-high personal popularity in light of such statistics owes much to the president’s magnetism and soothing mien. But it also derives from his White House team, which is chockablock with campaign operatives and loyalists—Axelrod, Jarrett, press secretary Robert Gibbs, senior adviser Pete Rouse, deputy chief of staff Jim Messina—at once highly skilled at and deeply devoted to buffing Obama’s image.

“You’ve never had a White House with this sort of political horsepower at this level,” says Stuart Stevens, a Republican media savant who played a key role in the election and reelection of George W. Bush. “Rahm Emanuel is a political operative. Axelrod is a guy who makes TV spots; he’s a PR guy. They’ve really studied the iconography of the presidency and invested themselves in it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But it influences everything.”

Both the strengths and weaknesses that Obama’s team has brought to the table in the White House were on vivid display during the campaign that propelled him into office. And they map precisely to the divergence between Obama’s Q-rating and the troubles he is running into regarding his performance and agenda. Obama’s bid was famously, brilliantly long on thematics and atmospherics—on his vague but inspiring promise of change and of lowering the temperature on the partisan conflict that had consumed the capital during the previous sixteen years—as well as a set of sharply drawn contrasts with his main opponents. That Obama was neither a Clinton, a Bush, nor a Bush successor was essential to his appeal.

But Obama’s was not a candidacy, to put it mildly, in which substance played a starring role—though the problem was subtler than the claim that his run was a policy-free zone. “What struck me about the campaign is what I like to call ‘the missing middle,’ ” explains the Brookings Institution scholar Bill Galston, who was among the architects of Clinton’s New Democratic creed in 1992. “Up here there was the riveting rhetoric, and down here a series of reasonably well-crafted, intelligent, and serious policy prescriptions. What was missing in the middle was the connective tissue that might be called the theory of the case.”

Illustration by Jason Lee

As Galston points out, both Clinton and Ronald Reagan campaigned on and carried with them to Washington cohesive theories of the case: not simply proposals, but analyses and narratives about the transformation of the economy, America’s place in the world, and the role of government (or lack thereof) in adapting to and shaping the future. For Obama, the absence of a theory of case caused him no harm in 2008. But his failure in office to articulate one has been more damaging. In the debates that have dominated his maiden year, it has left his plans looking formless and untethered, and made it far more difficult to frame them in a fashion maximally compelling to the public or politically effective on Capitol Hill.

“What Obama is learning,” says a prominent Democrat and Clinton-administration veteran, “is that it’s easier to get elected out of nowhere than it is to govern from nowhere.”

The first object lesson in the dangers of Obama’s theory-of-the-caselessness is the largest and most important piece of legislation that he has yet to enact: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—a.k.a., the $787 billion stimulus bill. Hatched by his advisers even before he took office, the bill was designed to inject a large amount of dough into the economy quickly to stave off the possibility of a horrendous recession turning into a second Great Depression. Its passage in mid-February was a major victory right out of the chute for the new administration, but its longer-term fallout has proved considerably less salutary.

The field general for the fight to pass the stimulus was Emanuel, and the strategy he fashioned bore all the hallmarks that have marked his tenure from that point since. Emanuel, who served first in the Clinton White House and then as a three-term congressman, is one of the few top Obama advisers with experience at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Shrewd and combative, hyperactive and profane, partisan to his core, he is above all a bone-deep pragmatist—a temperamental affinity between him and Obama that (for now) has trumped all the other differences between their sensibilities.

With the stimulus, Emanuel’s devotion to the art of the possible caused him to make two fateful choices. The first involved the proportions of the package. Though Christina Romer, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, believed that its optimal size would have been $1.2 trillion, Emanuel scotched that figure as unpalatable to Congress and settled on a price tag almost identical to what was later approved. (When Paul Krugman moaned that the package was too small, Emanuel scoffed, “How many bills has he passed?”) The second choice, driven by similar imperatives, was to forgo having the White House draft the legislation and instead outsource its cobbling-together to the Democratic leadership on the Hill.

Nearly ten months later, the broad consensus verdict among economists is that the stimulus has been a kind of success. That, as the New York Times reported the other day, it “is helping an economy in free fall a year ago to grow again and shed fewer jobs than it otherwise would.” That “Mr. Obama’s promise to ‘save or create’ about 3.5 million jobs by the end of 2010 is roughly on track, though far more jobs are being saved than created.”

All of which is true enough. But viewed from other angles, the stimulus looks more like the Obama administration’s original sin. With unemployment now in double digits and apparently headed higher still, the dismissal of Romer’s $1.2 trillion figure seems a glaring screwup purely on policy grounds. And in the absence of a strong hand by the White House, the bill degenerated into substantive incoherence, failing to focus not only on job creation but also, as the Earth Institute’s Jeffrey Sachs argues, on any of the structural reformations—from the conversion to a low-carbon energy supply to updating America’s infrastructure—that would benefit the American economy most and that Obama touted in his campaign.

The political consequences of the bill have been equally problematic. “Obama came in in January with a 70 percent approval rating,” notes a senior Democratic strategist. “Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the rest of the congressional Democrats were around 40, so the White House managed to attach itself to a body of people who were 30 points less popular than they were and allow their fate to be determined by the performance of Congress. One of the reasons Obama got elected was to fix Washington, to make the city work for everyday people again. Turning this over to the guys the public didn’t trust was, on its face, a crazy thing.”

The decision to defer to Pelosi and Reid produced other ill effects. When Democrats on the Hill (inevitably) inserted dubious provisions in the package—the contraceptives, the resodding of the National Mall—the door was opened to the GOP mockery of the bill as a fatback-festooned grotesquerie concocted by drunk-at-the-punchbowl liberals. Not a single member of the opposition in the House, and a meager two in the Senate, voted for the bill. “That was the moment,” maintains Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, “when the party coalesced, when the battle lines were drawn.”

It’s fair to surmise that the GOP was destined to wind up pounding on Obama with a sledgehammer no matter how he conducted himself. But it was the president, after all, who had made the abatement of hoary ideological divisions an animating theme of his campaign. “By handing over the stimulus to Congress, he determined that post-partisanship would be tonal and not substantive,” says Galston. “And that’s fine. It was a clean choice. But it was a choice with consequences. It set the tone for what we now have.” Which is to say, a degree and intensity of polarization even greater than what obtained before Obama’s ascendancy.

But the most damaging consequence of all may have been inside the White House, where bullishness about how rapidly the stimulus would kick in led to foolish projections that unemployment would peak at 8 percent—and where the bill’s passage bred a certain cockiness and complacency about the need to drive a sustained economic message in the months thereafter. “I recently talked to a very senior friend of mine in the White House, and I said, ‘How did we not spend a year talking about the economy?’ ” a Democratic think-tank maven recalls. “And he said, ‘Look, I think Barack did the stimulus and he thought he checked the box and he moved on.’ I said, ‘That’s not governing, dude. That’s some other thing.’ ”

To date, the verdict of the public on the stimulus has been rather different from the one rendered by the professionals. According to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, only a third of likely voters believe that the package has helped the economy. And together with the bank and auto bailouts, it left the impression of an administration enamored of both Big Business and Big Government—arguably the worst image conceivable for a spanking-new Democratic administration at a time when populist passions are running hot.

With all these economic initiatives, Team Obama raced ahead to stem what it saw (correctly) as metastasizing crises. Its efforts were driven by idealism and an apt sense of urgency, but they were also marked by a combination of hubris, naïveté, and an airy inattention to the politics that proved harmful to the cause—and that would be repeated to even worse effect when it came to the much bigger enchilada that Obama spent the rest of the year attempting to get Congress to digest.

“What is missing is the theory of the case.”

Unlike the stimulus, which in principle was seen as necessary by virtually every Democrat, health care was a war of choice—and one that any number of legislators in Obama’s party counseled him to avoid, at least in his first year. Instead, they advised him to take on energy or education, or to maintain a laserlike focus on the economy. “They should have done something where the preexisting common ground was much greater,” argues a centrist Democratic senator. “Health care for all has been a cherished ideal of our party forever, but getting there was always going to be a quagmire.”

The White House’s approach to keeping health care from turning into a tar baby was identical to how it tackled the stimulus: a strategy of congressional deference. Once again, the plan was masterminded by Emanuel and called for the administration to enunciate broad principles—expanding coverage, bending the cost curve, not increasing the deficit—but leave drafting the mega-bill to the barons on the Hill.

The standard knock on this strategy has come from leftier congressmen, such as New York’s Anthony Weiner, who ardently favor a strong public option and have been irked that Obama has failed to put his finger more forcefully on the scale in favor of that proposal. Their complaint has been straightforward: that the White House has been more interested in passing something, anything, no matter how ineffectual, that could be labeled reform than in making sound policy. “There’s a certain Rahmian sense that all they really want is to put the win on the board,” says Weiner. “Their essential view has been, ‘Whatever has the votes, we like.’ ”

Emanuel’s response to such critiques has been blunt: Yes, and your point is? “Let’s be honest,” he recently told the Times. “The goal isn’t to see whether I can pass this through the executive board of the Brookings Institution. I’m passing it through the United States Congress … I’m sure there are a lot of people sitting in the shade at the Aspen Institute …  who will tell you what the ideal plan is. Great, fascinating.”

Beneath Emanuel’s amusing back-of-the-handism is a serious point, and no small amount of history. Shaping his modus vivendi on health care all along has been the searing memory of what happened when the Clinton administration took an our-way-or-the highway approach to reform. By delegating the heavy lifting to the Hill, Emanuel was wagering that the House and Senate would have more skin in the game and hence be more likely to make progress. And that any of the policy options that might be enacted would represent an enormous improvement on the status quo. In short, Emanuel, and by extension Obama, was adhering to the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, who was fond of saying, “My policy is to have no policy.”

That comprehensive reform is now closer to passage than ever before has fueled a sense of vindication in the White House. “For the first time in 50 years, after five presidents have tried, you have five bills that passed committee, you had the passage in the House, and it’s now moving forward in the Senate,” says Jarrett. “So what the president is doing has worked.”

The view from Capitol Hill is different, and not just from public-option purists. Among some senators and representatives, the obstacles that remain to passing a bill—on abortion, the public option, cost-cutting, and tax-hiking—appear to be growing larger rather than receding. Among others, a sense of guarded optimism remains, if only because the political wreckage that would ensue if the bill collapses would be so cataclysmic. “Every Democrat, from the most liberal to the most conservative, realizes that we have to pass a bill,” argues Senator Chuck Schumer. “Failure is simply not an option.”

Yet the widespread sense among Democrats is that, even if health-care does cross the finish line, it will be a pyrrhic victory, at least in the short term. That Obama and his people badly botched the job of presenting reform to the country and persuading the electorate of its necessity. (According to Quinnipiac, voters disapprove of the president’s handling of the issue by a 53 to 41 percent margin.) That Obama’s above-the-fray posture over the summer allowed the Republicans to define the bill in lasting and lastingly damaging ways. That he wasted precious political capital on an issue that few voters (just 17 percent) consider paramount at this time of economic frailty. And that he allowed the potentially transformative wave that carried him into Washington to slink back into the sea. “We’ll get a health-care bill,” says a Democratic senator. “But we’ve squandered the ability to change America.”

This kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking is par for the course in the Senate, to be sure. But in this case what’s driving it is one brute reality: that any bill that Obama signs into law is likely to be a political loser for Democrats in Congress in 2010 and 2012. Why? Because most of its key elements won’t go into effect until 2013. “It’s not gonna have affected anything a year from now,” says another senator. “Nobody’s premiums will be lower; some people’s will be higher. Nobody who isn’t already covered will be covered yet. That’ll all be in the pipeline, but nobody will have felt it yet.”

For Obama, the problem is less acute than it is for congressional Democrats up for reelection in the coming mid-terms. But a problem it still is—not only for his own reelection effort three years from now, when the effects of reform will still be minimal, but because of the atmosphere the entire health-care endeavor has engendered in his party on the Hill. “The House is angry at the Senate, the Senate thinks the House is crazy, and they’re all pissed at the White House for not exerting adequate leadership over the process and for taking its eye off the ball on the economy,” says the Democratic strategist. “I don’t think the White House understands what’s going on or how bad it is.”

Had Emanuel or Axelrod been present two weeks ago when the members of the House Democratic caucus held their weekly meeting in a windowless room in the Capitol, the picture would have been all too clear. The frustration with Obama’s perceived fecklessness on unemployment was simmering, with open attacks on his economic team and emotional calls for a second stimulus. The next day, Pelosi announced she intended to introduce a jobs bill before year’s end, while across the Hill, Reid signaled his interest in doing the same in early 2010—although congressional aides noted tartly that the White House had “yet to get onboard.”

These rattlings presage the sort of conflict that’s likely to attend the critical, maybe seminal, hundred days that lie ahead for Obama. The White House may or may not climb aboard a jobs bill, but its enthusiasm for the prospect is roughly equivalent to that of a 6-year-old confronted with a plate of cauliflower. Obama and his budget chief, Peter Orszag, have been sending clear signals for weeks that the administration intends to focus in its upcoming budget on fiscal restraint—on at least mapping out the path it will take to wage an assault on Mount Deficit. But congressional liberals have close to zero appetite for such a hike. “If the White House comes out in January all deficit hawkish,” says the strategist, “House and Senate Democrats are going to have an anti-Obama tea party of their own.”

The economy and the budget aren’t the only matters on which Obama is likely to wind up crosswise with the left. In his speech to the nation on December 1, the president is all but certain to announce the deployment of around 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Already, Congressman David Obey and Senator Carl Levin, both powerful committee chairmen and staunch opponents of escalating America’s role in the conflict, are threatening to put forward a “war surtax” to pay for the additional forces—i.e., attempt to kill the plan by wielding the power of the purse. One Democratic congressman predicts that fully half of his caucus will oppose the escalation. “Obama is going to get his ass kicked on this,” the congressman says.

And then there is health care. Assuming that the Senate passes its bill, Obama will likely be compelled to step in and place his cards on the table when a conference committee attempts to meld it with the legislation passed by the House. By all indications, he is ready to abandon the public option (or accept a triggerized incarnation so watered down it barely merits the name) and make other compromises that threaten to enrage, or at least depress to the point of contemplating seppuku, the Democratic base.

What’s ominous about the prospect of enthusiasm for Obama’s faltering on the left is that the president has already lost so much ground with the center. The national polling averages compiled by Pollster.com show that his numbers among independent voters are upside down, with 45 percent disapproving of the job he is doing and 44 percent approving. “He’s stuck, and it’s kind of ironic,” says Castellanos. “Obama has tried so hard not to be George Bush and Bill Clinton, and yet he is becoming exactly that. The guy who ran against ideological division has brought it back with such a vengeance that he’s lost the middle, but not sufficiently to make his base happy. He’s got no friends.”

But the creeping disappointment in Obama is rooted in something deeper and more inchoate than his stances on the issues or his legislative strategies. It has to do with his inevitable and inexorable demystification—his transformation from a fantasy superman into something more ordinary. “The United States, with its powers of marketplace imagination and corresponding historical amnesia, is tremendously good at turning yesterday’s extraordinary change into tomorrow’s quotidian commodity for sale,” observes a Democratic activist ruefully. “Which is what I fear is happening to Obama: He’s pretty much becoming another president, a picture on a coffee mug.”

Obama has done his share to contribute to what Max Weber might have called the routinization of his own charisma. For much of the past ten months, the outside-shot candidate has been the inside-game president, consumed with dickering with Congress and deliberating with his team, spending more time appealing to various Beltway constituencies than to us. His oft-noted omnipresence in the media has done little to connect him more viscerally to the electorate. Astonishingly, this inspiring, eloquent, and persuasive man has often seemed an arid and distant figure.

All of which is why the next hundred days, despite or perhaps because of the difficulties they will present, offer Obama an ideal chance to reclaim his lost mojo. Accomplishing this will require a marked shift in métier. Less detachment and more engagement. Less deference and more defiance. Less diffusion and more focus. Less pragmatism and more principle. Less conciliation and more cannon fire.

What’s required most of all from Obama at this moment, however, is clarity. There will be no avoiding unhappiness in many quarters about his decision when it comes to Afghanistan. There is no answer to the deficit-unemployment conundrum that will satisfy everyone. But the process of making unpopular choices will help turn Obama from a passive to an active president. The challenge for him—and what he does so well when he is so moved—will be to explain those choices, to educate the electorate, to speak to us as adults. To lay out what he believes and why, along with a vision of the future to which he wants to shepherd the country. As Simon Rosenberg, the head of the progressive advocacy group NDN, puts it, “He needs to say, day after day, ‘This is where we’re going. We can differ on the tactics on how to get there, but four years from now, eight years from now, this is where we’re going to be. Come with me. I’m going to lead you there.’”

Easier advised than done, you might say, and you would be right. But Obama has always been at his best when the stakes were highest, the risks greatest, the 24-second clock dwindling perilously close to zero. In his race for the White House, he met every moment of maximum peril—from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright furor to the financial crisis—in the same way: He seized control of his campaign, raised his own game, and calmly drained a three-pointer. And that is exactly what he needs to do now with his presidency. As a wise man once observed in another context, the time for change has come.

Obama Lost, Obama Found