The Corner

Obama’s Blunder

In February, I wrote:

If there’s a single event for which Obama himself is to blame, one decision that explains his predicament, it is his mishandling of the stimulus at the dawn of his administration. Put aside the debate over whether it has “worked,” and forget the White House’s absurd trick of talking about jobs “saved or created” (for the record, I save or create 500 push-ups every morning). Obama made a rookie mistake outsourcing his first major domestic policy decision to Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and the Old Bulls of the Democratic Party, and that blunder has done lasting damage to his presidency.

This time last year, there was a wide and deep consensus that the country needed a second stimulus (President Bush’s first one of $152 billion was thrown down the memory hole). Many Republicans, licking their wounds after successive drubbings at the polls and fearful that prophecies of a generation “in the wilderness” might prove true, were either eager to side with the popular new president or were at least resigned to the fact that they might have to, particularly if Obama was going to honor his commitments to bipartisan governance. According to Gallup, Obama started with an initial approval rate of near 70% (a whopping 83% of Americans approved his transition efforts). When the public is divided 70%-30% in favor of something, most politicians like to be on the side of 70%.

Politically, the stimulus offered the president a chance to break the back of the GOP, while at the same time fulfilling his promise to transcend the gridlock and partisanship of recent years. If he had offered something close to half-a-loaf to Republicans at the time, he wouldn’t have won total GOP support, but he would have gotten a sizable chunk of their votes — enough for the White House to claim a real bipartisan victory and force a Republican buy-in to Obama’s agenda. The climate going into the 2010 elections might look very different if the Republican Party had an ownership stake in Obama’s economic policies.

Responding to Robert Reich, the always insightful Jay Cost fleshes out and explores similar terrain in a very interesting piece that provides a deeper context. A long excerpt (but read the whole thing):

In fact, if you look at presidential elections going back 100 years, Obama’s is the most geographically narrow of any victors except Carter, Kennedy, and Truman – none of whom had transformative presidencies. Even Bill Clinton in 1996, whose share of the two-party vote was comparable to Obama’s, still had a geographically broader voting coalition. Ditto George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Voting input inevitably determines policy output, and these maps hold the key to Reich’s disappointment with the President. In our system, it’s not just the number of votes that matter, but – thanks to Roger Sherman – how they are distributed across the several states. Obama’s urban support base was sufficient for political success in the House, which passed a very liberal health care bill last November. But rural places have greater sway in the Senate – and Obama’s weakness in rural America made for a half-dozen skittish Democrats who represent strong McCain states. The evolving thinking on the left – “Obama should have used his campaign-trail magic to change the political dynamic” – is thus totally misguided. The “remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign” never persuaded the constituents of the red state Democrats he had to win over. Why should they suddenly start doing so now?

Obama simply lacked the broad appeal to guide the House’s liberal proposal through the Senate. So, the result of “going big” was an initially liberal House product that then had to be watered down to win over red state Senators like Landrieu, Lincoln, Nelson, and Pryor. The end result was a compromise bill that, frankly, nobody really liked. Liberals were disappointed, tantalized as they were by the initial House product. Conservatives were wholly turned off, recognizing as they did that the guts of the bill were still liberal. And Independents and soft partisans were disgusted by congressional sausage-making and wary of the bill’s provisions.

Was there an alternative approach the President could have taken? I think so. Such a tactic would have acknowledged the sizeable McCain bloc. McCain won 22 states, making his coalition a politically potent minority. Obama should have governed in light of this. I don’t mean in hock to it. He didn’t have to make Sarah Palin his domestic policy advisor, but he should have ignored the hagiographers who were quick to declare him the next FDR. These flatterers always manifest themselves anytime a new Democrat comes to the White House, and they are of very little help for Democratic Presidents who actually want to be great.

What he should have done instead was disarm his opponents. If he had built initial policy proposals from the middle, he could have wooed the moderate flank of the Republican party, marginalized the conservatives, and alleviated the concerns of those gettable voters in the South and the Midwest….






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