Should Obama effectively confront these dynamics, he will still need some luck. Busy as he’s been, he has not yet experienced a single major moment that has benefited him politically. The most dramatic events of his term — the BP oil spill, the passage of the health-care law, the arms-control agreement with Russia — have had either no impact or a negative influence on Obama’s standing.
No one wants the country to suffer another catastrophe. But when a struggling Bill Clinton was faced with the Oklahoma City bombing and a floundering George W. Bush was confronted by 9/11, they found their voices and a route to political revival. Perhaps Obama’s crucible can be positive — the capture of Osama bin Laden, the fall of the Iranian regime, a dramatic technological innovation that revitalizes American manufacturing — something to reintroduce him to the American people and show the strengths he demonstrated as a presidential candidate.
While he negotiates his way through the lame-duck session of Congress, prepares for his State of the Union address and budget, and braces for the new normals of 2011, the President had better figure out how to react when the moment comes. Without that moment — whatever it is — and strong leadership in its wake, Obama may find his luck has run out.
This gets at something that Ramesh and I have discussed a few times. Bill Clinton clawed his way back after his 1994 shellacking by reintroducing himself to America in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. Some might say he exploited it too. Whatever, the point is he was successful at it. The question remains open whether Obama has the political skill to do anything similar (or whether such an event will transpire). I’m in the camp that thinks he might not have what it takes. He utterly failed to make hay out of the B.P. disaster, annoying both the left and the right. Of course, in a real tragedy, the inclination is for Americans to rally around the president and it’s hard to think we’d suddenly stop doing that now.
Still Obama has created special problems for himself. He came into office promising transformational change and decrying skepticism of his ability to do that. So any compromise with reality creates a problem for him.
An even bigger problem might be that this is the first administration I am aware of that elevated the concept of exploiting crises (something all politicians end up doing to one extent or another) to a philosophic and strategic principle (at least since Woodrow Wilson). When you come into office insisting that you’re not going to let a crisis “go to waste” it makes it tough to believe that your response to the next crisis isn’t motivated by some larger or competing agenda. The guy really has painted himself into a corner.