Obama’s Cardinal Errors
Four fundamental mistakes have drained the president's early momentum.
September 22, 2009 - 12:30 am
If the White House is to be believed, we simply haven’t heard enough from the president. Eight months of non-stop fawning coverage wasn’t enough. A presidential speech before Congress wasn’t enough. And you can bet that five Sunday talk shows won’t be enough.
That Obama hasn’t said anything of consequence in these outings seems to have escaped the White House’s notice. He’s not saying how he will pay for this. He’s not telling liberals they can’t have the public option. He’s just telling everyone else — especially the “silly” and “uniformed” people — to be more civil. And he is trying to tell us a tax isn’t a tax.
There are other creative theories. Mickey Kaus suggests that Obama has been too vague and allowed his critics to paint a picture of a scary leftist. He suggests that “uncertainty about Obama made it wildly important that he not do things that would give the most ominous speculation — that he’s way on the left of the possible envelope — any traction.” But of course it was easy to fill in the blanks because Obama kept doing scary leftist things, like spending through the roof, appointing Van Jones, and yanking missile defense installations out of Poland and the Czech Republic.
And then the likes of Jimmy Carter and Maureen Dowd tell us that the real issue is racism. Americans elected an African-American, supported him overwhelmingly for months, and then discovered their inner racism and turned on him. Or some of them did. Or the loud ones did, masking their racism with “phony” reasons for opposing Obama-ism. The absence of any racially-tinged language by Joe Wilson and other critics is beside the point.
None of these seem very convincing, however. It really isn’t all that complicated, actually. Obama has, in less than a year, made four cardinal errors.
First, while the country is in the grip of rising unemployment and anemic growth, the president has taken a note of passivity and has failed to introduce a single initiative to combat the voters’ primary concern: the lack of private-sector jobs. In his Sunday talk show extravaganza he observed, “Probably the jobs picture is not going to improve considerably — and it could even get a little bit worse — over the next couple of months. … And we’re probably not going to start seeing enough job creation to deal with a rising population until sometime next year.” You would think he would have something to offer to stem the job loss. Imagine how a Republican would be labeled (“callous!” or “indifferent!” or “out to lunch!”) if he showed this little attention to the prospect of double-digit unemployment for the foreseeable future.
Second, his “superior temperament” has turned to peevishness. He sounds like a media critic or an MSNBC talk show host bemoaning the conservative opposition. He has forgotten that the president enjoys the special ability to rise above the fray — unless he fritters away the high ground to get into the mud.
Third, presented with a choice between governing as a centrist and governing as a leftist, he chose the latter, feeding the netroot machine with Bush invectives, championing huge government power grabs, nationalizing two car companies, apologizing incessantly for America’s real and imagined sins, undertaking a spending spree like no other president, and lecturing us about racism (proving that any hopes for a post-racial era were misplaced).
Had Obama run a campaign promising to excoriate his predecessor at every turn, pass a mammoth energy tax and regulatory scheme, chase private health insurance from the market, outspend George W. Bush, deride America to overseas foes, toss valued allies including Israel, Honduras, Poland, and the Czech Republic under the bus, renege on missile defense in Europe and cut our own systems by $2 billion, and hire a “truther” for green jobs czar and an attorney general who wants to talk more and more about race (but not prosecute the New Black Panthers), it is fair to say he would never have gotten elected. So it should be no mystery why so many voters are having buyers’ remorse.
And finally, Obama hasn’t actually gotten much done, at least not much that voters see as positive. His stimulus is regarded as a bust. Americans hate the car company takeovers. And what else has he done? Card check and cap-and-trade legislation are on the back burner. None of his unilateral concessions in foreign policy have borne fruit. (No Russian agreement on Iranian sanctions, no Iranian agreement to move on their nuclear program, no Syrian agreement to stem the flood of terrorists into Iraq, and no sign of reciprocity from Cuba.) And health care reform is where it has been for the last eight months: in legislative gridlock. As Walter Russell Mead put it:
It all looked so easy last winter when a cocky administration and a hyperbolic press talked about a new Lincoln and a new FDR in the White House. Nine months later, the president has more irons in the fire than trophies on the wall.
The Democrats are disunited worried about 2010. Abroad, the foreigners don’t seem to be listening: not Netanyahu, not Libya, not Iran — even tiny Honduras blew off Obama’s demand that it reinstate an ousted president. Less than a year into his presidency, his enemies at home and abroad think he’s weak and on the way down.
The president could turn this around by focusing on job creation, ceasing to snarl at critics, adopting a more centrist approach on domestic and foreign policy, and finding some areas of common agreement to pass through Congress (e.g., real education reform). But so long as Obama and his spinners remain convinced the real issue is not enough him or the mean conservatives or racism, there is little chance of that.