Green Room

Diagnosing Obama’s problems is not rocket science

posted at 12:18 pm on September 4, 2009 by

Charlie Cook writes that Pres. Obama and the Democrats are “bleeding independents,” with potential effects on the 2010 midterm elections:

Listening to two briefings — one by a Democratic pollster who had just conducted a survey for a group favoring health care reform, the other by a Republican pollster more skeptical of the reform plans — I felt as if I were hearing a pair of reports by the National Transportation Safety Board on the same plane crash. But in sorting through the problems facing President Obama and congressional Democrats, focusing too narrowly on their disastrous handling of health care would be a mistake.


…[L]ate last year many moderates and independents who were already frightened about the economy began to fret that Washington was taking irreversible actions that would drive mountainous deficits higher. They worried that government was taking on far more than it could competently handle and far more than the country could afford. Against this backdrop, Obama’s agenda fanned fears that government was expanding too far, too fast. Before long, his strategy of letting Congress take the lead in formulating legislative proposals and thus prodding lawmakers to take ownership in their outcome caused his poll numbers on “strength” and “leadership” to plummet.

This is not surprising. Only 50 days into his administration, Pres. Obama was facing — and rejecting — criticism that he was trying to do “too much, too soon.” At that time, I wrote:

That President Obama seems to be following the “too much, too soon” path of Carter and Clinton should not be a big surprise. Obama’s election continues a 16-year cycle favoring relatively inexperienced Democrats preaching the gospel of Hopenchange. Victory apparently breeds hubris in such presidents that causes them to ignore the lessons of history — or get just plain get them wrong.

Pres. Obama’s problems with Congress were also predictable. On this point, I’ll reprint at length from something I wrote on July 9, 2008:

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As a political analyst, Dick Morris is a great pollster. However, it is worth considering his forecast of what an Obama administration would face from a Congress that will in all likelihood be more progressive, with more Democrats than it has now:

Faced with the same situation in 1993, as he took office as president, Bill Clinton found no alternative but to move dramatically to the left, shelving for the moment his promises of a middle-class tax cut and welfare reform. He had no choice. The Democratic majorities in both Houses served him with notice: Either you stay within the caucus and not cross the aisle in search of support for centrist policies, or we will do unto you what we did to Jimmy Carter when Tip O’Neill turned on him and made his life miserable. Clinton was forced to emphasize healthcare reform over welfare changes and to go with a liberal economic stimulus package capped by big tax increases. The liberal stain sank so deeply into the fabric of his presidency that it caused him to lose Congress in 1994, and almost to lose the 1996 election.

I am again reminded of the 16-year cycle of “change” elections the US has tended to have since WWII:

Once in office, JFK, Carter and Clinton all had difficulty moving their agendas through Democratic Congresses. And they were perceived as weak by our foreign adversaries, with serious consequences for US foreign policy that often outlasted their terms in office.

Morris here adds the interesting wrinkle that such presidents can find themselves hobbled by a Democratic Congress, regardless of whether they fight Congress (as Carter did) or become hostage to it (as Clinton did). An Obama administration would have to Hope that Congress would Change its expectations.

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My Dad recently mentioned that it may seem smarmy when I quote or link myself as I have just done (and he’s probably right). However, the point of revisiting these points is not to claim that I am some sort of oracle. To the contrary, I revisit these points to demonstrate that what is happening now was eminently foreseeable by anyone. A little bit of political science and history — or a willingness to do an hour or so of work with a search engine — is enough to do the trick. Charlie Cook and the pollsters he consulted — people paid to do this sort of thing — could have seen this coming as easily as some pseudonymous blogger. Had he done so, Cook might have conceded that he is being a bit ungenerous to Pres. Obama, as history suggests he would have had problems with a Democratic Congress regardless of his level of engagement.

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Karl, I see nothing smarmy or egotistical about referring to an earlier post of yours. It’s part of being a good blogger. You are saving the reader the time of doing his own follow-up.

HowardPortnoy on September 4, 2009 at 1:40 PM