Obama misread his mandate. “Obama’s 2008 victory was a personal one,” says Bill Galston, an adviser to President Clinton. “It wasn’t a vote for a more expansive view of the role and reach of government.” The stimulus, on its own, wasn’t the problem. It was the thousands of easy-to-caricature pages of new legislation that came on top of it, all of which revived the Republicans’ “big government” narrative.
Obama—an overachiever, the guy who fills up a second blue book on the extra-credit question—tried to do it all. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, eager to please the new boss, declared before Inauguration Day: “Never allow a crisis to go to waste. There are opportunities to do big things.” But in doing big things, they failed to fully attend to (and be seen attending to) the immediate economic needs of the middle class. “There hasn’t been the laserlike focus on the economy there could have, and should have, been,” says a top Democratic strategist who declined to be named criticizing the White House.
Take health-care reform. Ten years hence, perhaps, it will be seen as the signal achievement of the Obama years. But for now, it’s an unpopular law that took a divisive year to enact, that liberals and conservatives loathe, that is full of bureaucratic and fiscal IEDs, and that drained attention from dealing with the economy. If you disagree, look at Obama’s speech last week in Cleveland. In 47 minutes, he mentioned health care for about 25 seconds.