The Weight Around the Democrats' Ankles: Barack Obama

Published February 2, 2010

Politics Daily

President Obama has attempted, through his health care plan, one of the most ambitious government takeovers of the private economy in our lifetime. Republican lawmakers have, to a person, declined to assist Obama in this effort. Opposition by the out-of-power party is not unusual — though the degree of polarization we have seen during the Obama presidency is unprecedented. Barack Obama is the most polarizing first year president since the 1950s, when Gallup first began polling on this issue.

What is unusual, and politically worrisome for Obama, is for a president this early in his tenure to see own party increasingly pay little heed to his wishes. For example, the Obama administration took great pride in announcing that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would be given a civilian trial in New York City, just a few blocks from where the World Trade Center buildings were attacked and destroyed.

This was supposed to be emblematic of what a law-abiding, image-changing administration it is. Yet late last week most of the New York Congressional delegation and other New York officials told the president that he best find a new venue. Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of the administration's closest allies on Capitol Hill, said that he was hopeful the administration could “find suitable alternatives.” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein agreed that the trial should be moved, saying, “from an intelligence perspective, the situation has changed with the Christmas attack . . . and the administration should take note of that and make a change as well.” And on Sunday, Indiana Democratic Sen. Sen. Evan Bayh said that the KSM trial “sounded good in theory way back when but, in practice, it just was not the right thing to do.”And so it is back to the drawing board for the Obama Justice Department.

In his State of the Union address, the president, speaking to his party about his crippled health care proposal, said the American people don't expect lawmakers to “run for the hills.” But hills are exactly where many Democrats are heading, petrified as they are by the political damaging effects of ObamaCare. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, when asked about health care in the aftermath of Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts, said, “We're not on health care now. We've talked a lot about it in the past.” After having spoken about its urgency for most of the past year, Harry Reid said, “There is no rush.” (There is talk of Democrats quietly attempting to resuscitate health care legislation, but it is hard to believe they will go down this politically perilous path.)

Democratic lawmakers are also starting to voice their disenchantment with the head of their party. Sen. Byron Dorgan, (D-N.D.), said about Obama on health care, “the timing wasn't good.” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who described health care reform as on “life support,” complained that in his State of the Union address, Obama “should have been more clear . . . because that is what it is going to take if it is at all possible to get it done.” She added, “Mailing in general suggestions, sending them over the transom, is not necessarily going to work.” And for good measure she said the president's criticism of the Senate was “a little strange, a little odd.”

Obama has also been rebuked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi several times. Early in January, reminded that candidate Obama promised all health care negotiations would be broadcast on C-SPAN, Pelosi dismissively said, “There are a number of things he was for on the campaign trail.” And in response to Obama's admission to House Republicans that health care involved “a messy process,” Pelosi shot back, “The American people don't care about process.” And Pelosi dissented from Obama's call for a three-year freeze on some categories of federal spending, saying that it should cover defense spending as well.

Meanwhile, the president's cap-and-trade proposal is languishing in the Senate, where it is unlikely to ever see the light of day. Guantanamo Bay remains open even though Obama, in one of the first acts of his presidency, declared it would be closed within a year.

In sum: the Obama presidency is seeing its influence and prestige drain away at an unusually rapid rate. It is hard to recall another president who, this early in his tenure, had encountered this much trouble, including the hapless Jimmy Carter, and the more resourceful Bill Clinton, who won re-election only after significantly adjusting the direction of his presidency in the aftermath of his troubled opening act.

Clinton's mid-term correction didn't come in time to help House members or Senators in vulnerable districts, however, and it is rapidly dawning on many Democrats — especially ones up for re-election in 2010 — that hitching their fortunes to the president's unpopular agenda is not only unwise; it might well be political suicide. Their survival increasingly depends on pursuing an agenda different than, and sometimes at odds with, the president of their own party.

Republicans, sensing the seismic shift that has occurred since Obama was sworn in, are now eager to tether Democrats to their badly weakened party leader. Jonathan Martin of Politico reports that Obama's fading luster is seen by opposition party strategists as a key to high Republican hopes for this year's midterm elections:

As buoyant Republicans devise their game plan for the 2010 campaign, party officials are counting on a boost from an unlikely source — President Obama. A tactic that would have seemed far-fetched a year ago, when the new president was sworn in with a 67 percent job approval rating, is now emerging as a key component of the GOP strategy: Tie Democratic opponents to Obama and make them answer for some of the unpopular policies associated with the chief executive.

The problem for President Obama is that there is no obvious path out of his situation, at least in the short-to-mid-term. If history is any guide, his approval ratings — which have already fallen more than any first year president in history — will fall even further in his second year. Obama's effort to reclaim the magic of his campaign is unlikely to work in light of his first year, when he pursued a hyper-partisan agenda and shattered promise after promise. According to the latest Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates, unemployment will remain at around 10 percent this year, which will be like a millstone around the neck of Democrats. ObamaCare has proven to be not only unpopular but politically toxic. The president's new budget — which projects a record-breaking, mind-blowing deficit of $1.56 trillion — is political kryptonite for Democrats; it reinforces the worst possible narrative about them (profligate, fiscally reckless, unprepared to govern).

Politics can be fluid, of course, and other presidents have rebounded. We will see what unfolds in the next several months. What we can judge is the current moment in time — and right now political analysts from Michael Barone to Charlie Cook are saying, with ample empirical justification, that a mid-term blow out of potentially epic dimensions may be in store for Democrats.

During the presidential campaign Obama's aides modestly conferred on him the nickname “Black Jesus,” according to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's new book Game Change. If Obama objected to the moniker, he didn't say so.

It now appears Obama is not only mortal but deeply flawed. The man his supporters declared — even before he took office — to be the next Lincoln or FDR appears to be on the ropes. So is his party. And things are likely to get worse rather than better. What was once a marriage seemingly made in heaven has, in recent weeks, shown severe strains. Those strains are giving way to public disputes, which may give way to a trial separation. And that trial separation may, for a significant number of Democrats running this year, give way to an amicable, we-still-respect-and-care-for-each-other divorce.

It was supposed to be so much easier, and he was supposed to be so much better, than this.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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