Obama on the ropes
Andrew Sullivan makes his return to the blogosphere with a Where Are We Now-styled post, the majority of which features him rather deftly outlining the many ways in which the President finds himself in a bad, bad way:
We knew this [recession] was a bad one; and we also knew that recoveries after financial crashes tend to last longer. But politically, it has up-ended the core strategy of Obama’s re-election. The bet was that recovery would be visible enough by 2012 for voters to remember who got us into this mess and be patient with those trying to get us out of it.
For the most part, it seems to me that the bet has failed. The stimulus was not perfect, but it definitely put a floor under the pain. But we’ve been bouncing along that floor ever since – and, in my view, are far too indebted to risk another huge bout of borrowing to try and kickstart the engine again. Worse, the Republican brinksmanship over the debt ceiling and the subsequent downgrade seriously hurt the president’s image of competence. Yes, the Tea Party was hurt much more. But they have dragged Obama down with them, and helped create a narrative of a weak, flailing executive. I don’t think the president who enacted universal healthcare, rescued Detroit successfully and killed Osama bin Laden and much of al Qaeda’s leadership can be described as weak. But the Christianist right’s passionate hatred of the man has taken a toll; and the refusal of the left to defend the administration’s substantive achievements has led to Obama once again on the ropes.
I’m not sure why Sullivan thinks that another round of borrowing is ill-advised, especially considering we’re now borrowing at negative interest. I assume he worries that the United States’ amassing another barrel-full of debt right now would so terrify markets as to compel them to send their investments elsewhere, pulling the rug out from right under our feet. Maybe. But where would they go, for one; and if they were really so worried about the US’s debt-load, why would they have run to Treasury bonds in response to the market schizophrenia of last month? And if it’s debt—not a bad economy—that has them so antsy, why is it that one Wall Street analyst after another is predicting slow growth and blaming austerity measures for it? I think Andrew’s seemingly ingrained, almost spiritual fear of debt is getting the better of him here. (It’s a moot point, of course, considering Congress would never allow this kind of stimulative borrowing, anyway.)
I also couldn’t help but smirk at Andrew’s description of the “refusal of the left to defend the administration’s substantive achievements.” It’s a bit of a chicken/egg thing, I suppose, but I think one could more reasonably place the blame for this lack of appreciation on the White House for not presiding over “substantive achievements” that the left would feel inclined to defend. I know that there’s a very popular image among Obama defenders of some all-powerful group of unreasonable leftists, hell-bent upon submarining the President unless they’re given the implementation of the Port Huron Statement; but this really is a crock. The number of people peeved with Obama from the left is small, and the number of that number able to impact the President’s political fortunes with their defense or lack thereof is even smaller. Like, zero.
Anyway, I’ll admit some bias here. I’m not one to think the liberal utopia was there for Obama’s taking—but I’m also not much convinced by those (like Sullivan previously, or Jonathan Chait) who would have us believe that Obama got, more or less, all that was there to be gotten. I’m also biased in my inclination to, when the powerful are pitted against the not-so, take the side of the former. I don’t really like the idea of our having “failed” our leader. I don’t think that’s what democracy should be about.
Moving on, next comes the section I’ve come to expect in any post by Sullivan on Obama’s political travails—the part in which he explains how basically everything is going to be all right, and no real alteration of Obama’s strategy or tactics is necessary:
Yes, he has been there before. Many times. But this is the most serious in terms of approval ratings. His job now is to keep insisting on a balanced debt reduction package and an aggressive attempt to do the limited things he can to help employment rebound. Once this dynamic kicks in, as it will this Thursday, I think the core GOP obstructionist case against anything this president wants gets politically riskier. We will segue into the phase of a choice, not a referendum. And as yet, the GOP has not mustered a credible or persuasive plan to cut the debt and get the economy moving again. Until they can explain what they would have done differently in the last two years and link that argument to a case for economic revival ahead, I think they’re far too cocky right now.
I’d buy this more willingly if it weren’t for the results of the last election, in which the Republican party offered an essentially incoherent policy platform—rephrasing the same old tax cut dogma but with an added “jobs!” at the end of every sentence—and cruised to a smashing victory. To some degree, of course, this can be explained by the awful economy and, more importantly, the very conservative demographics of mid-term voters. But let’s keep in mind that most voters don’t pay much attention to policy, at all.
If candidate Romney or Perry just repeats platitudes about creating jobs and getting America back to work and out of control spending, etc., etc., I see no real reason to conclude that the presumably unpopular Obama will be able to overcome with outlines of what he would do if only given the chance. In any event, the more Obama talks about policy, the more we’ll be reminded of his relative impotence for the past two years on this front. He can talk about what he’ll do, but inevitably the incumbent President is going to be judged by what he’s done. And that’s an argument Obama loses.
I’m not saying that Andrew’s wrong to think Obama’s still got some life in him. I think he does, too; but just a little. It’s not because of his “balanced approach,” however, that one can imagine the President winning in 2012. Rather, it’s because of the fact that he quite likely may be running against Gov. Perry, he of the phonebook-length quote sheet lambasting America’s most-cherished programs. In a perhaps bitter irony, then, Obama’s only chance of winning reelection is to run a campaign primarily concerned with the character and worldview of his opponent. That is to say, Obama will have to win out through embracing what many describe as the culture war, the prospective end of which was one of the chief reasons Sullivan supported Obama in the first place.
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)