As the Obama administration marks its first birthday, there is no reason to shop around for the perfect present. What President Barack Obama needs most is obvious: a new political strategy — ideally one more grounded in the realities of governance than the one he embraced a year ago Wednesday.
Republican Scott Brown’s astonishing Senate victory in Massachusetts does not spell doom for Obama’s agenda, even if many Democrats are acting as though it does. He remains a president who scores more than 50 percent in most polls, and whose party controls Congress. That’s more than enough clout for an ambitious president to dominate Washington.
But Massachusetts marked the final, crushing piece of evidence against the theory of the case that animated Obama’s first year. Simply put, that theory — which made some sense a year ago — turned out to be wrong.
Specifically, it was wrong on three major counts:
• Obama and his team believed that the 2008 election represented something seismic — in other words, something fundamental and long-lasting — in the country’s governing landscape. They believed that the historical cycle had turned, that voters had not only rejected George W. Bush’s brash conservatism but also had moved beyond Bill Clinton’s tepid and defensive-minded progressivism.
The nation’s problems and mood, the thinking went, put momentum behind Obama’s vision of robust, large-scale government action. But there has been no seismic shift. The county’s ideology is fluid — and depends on perceptions of the economy and the daily flow of news out of Washington. The assumption that Obama would be swimming mostly with the current rather than often against it on issues such as health care, financial regulation and global warming was naïve in retrospect.
• Obama believed that early success would be self-reinforcing, building a powerful momentum for bold government action. This belief was the essence of the White House’s theory of the “Big Bang.” Success in passing a big stimulus package would lead to success in passing health care, which in turn would clear the way for major cap-and-trade environmental legislation and “re-regulation” of the financial services sector — all in the first year.
This proved to be a radical misreading of the dynamics of power. The massive cost of the stimulus package and industry bailouts — combined with the inconvenient fact that unemployment went up after their passage — meant that Obama spent the year bleeding momentum rather than steadily increasing public confidence in his larger governing vision. That vision was further obscured for many Americans by the smoke from the bitter and seemingly endless legislative battle on Capitol Hill over health care.
• Most devoutly of all, the Obama team believed that there was something singular about the president’s appeal and ability to inspire.
This faith seemed well-placed in the context of 2008, when Obama won states such as Virginia that Democrats had not carried in decades. But it was misplaced in the context of 2009. Virtually everything Obama did to fill in the blanks on the timing and specifics of the agenda he had run on managed simultaneously to unite Republicans in opposition and divide Democrats into camps that thought he was going too far or that thought he was not going far enough.
These three miscalculations now, at the start of Year 2, lead to two urgent questions:
• Can Obama salvage a partial deal on health care so that — in combination with his record in halting the financial meltdown that greeted him a year ago — he could claim that his first year was at least “medium bang”? If not, his first year will go down as a big fizzle.
• What is the new governing strategy now that the defects of the old one have been exposed? It is clear that Obama’s new theory of the case is still being hatched, though it will clearly involve more sustained rhetorical focus on the problems of the economy.
Some Obama advisers also advocate an about-face, with the president portraying himself less as a great unifier and more as a great fighter, willing to stand up to the entrenched political and economic interests that his team contends are hurting average Americans.
Left unsaid is that this rebranding will involve significantly downsized notions of what can be achieved before Democrats next face voters in October.
Under this scenario, Obama may find himself being taunted by his own words of a year ago.
“Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,” Obama said in his inaugural address. “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.”
Political veterans of various ideological stripes interviewed in recent days said Obama should not necessarily have been surprised that the ground shifted on him.
“The same dynamism that took a skinny state Senator and put him in the Oval Office is at work today, operating to turn against a lot of his agenda," said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to President Bill Clinton. “It’s uncomfortable right now for Democrats, but the truth is it’s a very dynamic culture and without that dynamism we would never have a President Obama.”
“The challenge will be — and this is the same challenge Clinton faced — how adept and adroit will he be in adapting to a fast-changing culture,” said Begala, who believes Obama’s promise to bring post-partisan change to Washington was a big mistake that showed “a real misreading about recent history.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an old nemesis of Clinton’s, said the Obama team did not get that 2008 was what he calls “a performance election.”
“They misunderstood the election and they misunderstood the rules of governing,” said Gingrich. “By now he’s got himself in a situation where he’s in grave danger of losing the left on foreign policy and losing the right domestically and having little to no base to be governed from.”
“The Republicans failed and then the Democrats failed, so people are mad at everybody,” said Gingrich. “There was a moment when the country was prepared to look at the Democrats and say, ‘Republicans have been so disappointing maybe you can do this.’ I think there was a lot of positive momentum for Obama a year ago.”
This sounds like hypocrisy to many Democratic ears, since Republicans made it clear from nearly Day 1 that they saw little advantage in compromise with Obama and followed with a series of nearly unanimous party line votes against his agenda.
“Republicans have decided that Obama’s failure is their only path to success,” said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum.
Obama may not have fully reckoned with the frequent duality of public opinion: An electorate that says in polls it favors health care reform or other public policy ideas in concept often is frightened by the details.
In his first year, Obama “ran headlong into America’s anxieties about government,” said Bruce Reed, CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council.
What’s not clear is whether another politician — or even this president with a different governing approach — could have done better. The country is simply in an ornery mood.
“With the kind of problems we have today combined with bitter partisanship and media coverage with a premium on conflict, I doubt if we’ll ever see a truly popular president again in our lifetime,” said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a one-time adviser to George W. Bush.
“When you raise people’s expectation for change, and then what they get is something altogether different than what they expected, combined with an economic collapse and a lot of corresponding anxiety and fear, you have a pretty good stew for revolt.”