We are reaching the 100-day mark in the Obama presidency. Historians are examining whether he has done as much as FDR (no), while pundits are considering whether he is more popular than other presidents (some) and just as polarizing as George W. Bush (yes). But a more interesting question is whether independents, conservative Democrats, and moderate Republicans are bothered by what they have seen and are losing faith in the agent of change. There is reason — actually there are six reasons — why that collection of key swing voters might be having serious second thoughts.
First, the president’s budgetary plan is a Ponzi scheme. Not just died-in-the-wool conservatives, but moderates like David Brooks, Democratic stalwarts like Alice Rivlin, and editorial boards of major newspapers have figured out that Obama is spending like a drunken sailor, fudging any budget savings, and passing on a huge and unsustainable debt to future generations. It is not only tea party protesters, but average independent voters who are wary of the spend-a-thon. Problem: Obama will have a hard time holding on to fiscal conservatives.
Second, the Agent of Change has become the center of the swamp. He went to Washington promising to fundamentally change the character of politics. Instead, we have seen a parade of tax cheating appointees, a slew of ethics waivers allowing ex-lobbyists to impact their prior interest groups, and a hyper-partisan bout of chest-thumping (“We won”) which has buried hope of a post-partisan nirvana. Obama has plotted to operate the Federal Census out of Rahm Emanuel’s White House, run an amateurish smear campaign against Rush Limbaugh, and failed to attract more than three Republicans on his stimulus and budget plans. Even on education reform he has capitulated to the teachers’ union, disappointing his most ardent admirers. Problem: Young idealistic voters and independents who hate hyper-partisanship are going to be harder to lure to the polls now that they have seen President Obama, not only candidate Obama.
Third, the stimulus isn’t stimulating and unemployment is going higher. Having rejected Republican ideas for payroll tax cuts and other private sector job-creating ideas, Obama allowed Nancy Pelosi to draft a pork-a-thon trillion dollar bill, which does not even have the benefit of funneling money swiftly into the economy. Businesses are petrified by the prospect of new health care and cap-and-trade mandates, labor law changes, and a never-ending set of financial sector rule changes. Unemployment is 8.5% nationally, in double digits in several states, and going higher. Problem: It is now Obama’s economy — and voters usually hold the party in the White House responsible for bad economic news (see George W. Bush).
Fourth, by disclosing the enhanced interrogation techniques memos, Obama has unleashed a furious partisan frenzy and likely opened up the prospect of endless hearings, leaks, and accusations about who knew what and when. Is Nancy Pelosi complicit? Should we have Colin Powell testify about what he knew? Didn’t we prevent an attack on Los Angeles by waterboarding a terrorist?
The spectacle of a divisive and destructive witch hunt now looms before us. Moreover, as respected members of the intelligence community, including former CIA director Michael Hayden, step forward to condemn the decision to selectively release portions of memos which provide a road map to our interrogation techniques to the terrorists, voters may wonder why this was all necessary and whether Obama incited a national catastrophe. Problem: Obama may have swapped his newly minted image as a sober commander in chief for the mantle of netroot bomb thrower.
Fifth, the Republicans are more united and more energized than at anytime since the 2004 Bush election victory. Republicans have found their sense of fiscal sanity, have remained resolute against Obama’s irresponsible budget schemes, and have begun laying the groundwork with a simple message: Obama “spends too much, taxes too much, and borrows too much.” That theme resonated with the tea party protesters and has the potential to lure fiscal conservatives (in places like New Hampshire, for example) who at the end of the Bush presidency could no longer discern much of a difference between the parties. The Republicans have both reconnected with their base and provided a foundation for attracting key swing voters on core economic issues. Problem: “No” will seem like a good position if the economy doesn’t bounce back and our fiscal predicament becomes the top-of-the-fold story.
Sixth, you can’t be the Change Agent/grassroots community organizer from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Organizing for America has been a bust. It simply isn’t possible to keep supporters in a constant state of euphoria. Nor can Obama continue to be “all things to all people” once he has now announced his stands on controversial issues. The dizzying sense of being part of a once-in-a-lifetime post-political movement ended on Election Day. Problem: Obama is now a politician — still a popular one, but no longer a political messiah for many previously apolitical people (i.e., good luck getting all these people to the polls in a mid-term congressional election).
None of this is to say that Obama does not enjoy a high degree of personal popularity or that Republicans have recaptured the hearts and minds of all their countrymen. But the extent to which Obama has frittered away the opportunity to create a lasting centrist majority is startling, as is the degree to which the hapless Republican Party has begun to set a course for recovery.
As two key gubernatorial races play out, the economy limps along, and Obama struggles to quell the frenzy unleashed by the “torture” memos, we may see in 2009 a new storyline to replace “Are Republicans finished?”: “How did Obama blow it?” Stay tuned.