By Matt A. Mayer
While Obama can continue to blame President Bush and Republicans in 2009, by the mid-term elections in 2010, that dog won’t hunt anymore. He will have had two years to put in place his agenda. If the financial crisis worsens in 2009 and 2010, Obama will not be able to escape responsibility.
He promised bipartisanship, yet he rarely has reached across the aisle. In fact, the non-partisan National Journal judged his voting record as the U.S. Senate’s most liberal. He promised to fight special interests, yet he has never bucked the left’s special interest groups on any issues. In his book Dreams from my Father, Obama referred to his time in the private sector as a “spy behind enemy lines.” Uniters don’t talk that way.
Even if he wants to act moderately, will a Democrat-controlled Congress and the interest groups on the left that helped him get elected let him?
But, as Sigmund Freud once said, sometime a cigar is just a cigar. What if Obama is just another doctrinaire, partisan liberal who believes in bigger government, stronger unions, more regulation, higher taxes, evil corporations, and mostly soft power? His scant track record and his associations contain little evidence he is anything other than that.
I wrote those words shortly after President Barack Obama’s historic victory in this very journal in an article titled, “Obama’s Victory Must Be Bigger than the Moment.” Two years and another historic election later, those words ring louder and truer than ever.
Alas, Barack Obama is a mere human and, as such, imperfect. Like Icarus flying too close to the Sun, Obama’s waxed wings have melted and he has fallen back to Earth with the rest of us.
So, how did America discover Obama’s humanity? For the first time in his political life, Obama had to make real decisions that would have real consequences for 305 million people and, in some cases, the world at-large. He could not vote “present” or hide behind his party’s leadership, soaring rhetoric, or a complicit media. For the last two years, the buck truly stopped with Obama.
With the massive Republican gains at all levels of government across America on November 2, only the willfully delusional could dismiss the electoral repudiation as unrelated to Obama’s first two years. The same wave on which he rode in created an equally powerful undertow that washed him back out to sea.
Can he recover in the next two years to salvage his presidency, or will he go down as another Jimmy Carter? History and American sentiment indicate that he can—if he abandons the liberal-progressive agenda that led to his current plight and comes to terms with the judgment of voters.
Remember, in January 1983, Ronald Reagan’s popularity stood at a paltry 35 percent and there was widespread talk that he would not seek reelection in 1984. Twenty-two months later he won a second term by one of the largest electoral victories in U.S. history. Reagan’s reelection hopes rose as the economy recovered by the summer of 1983 and launched what became one of the longest economic expansions in modern American history.
Bill Clinton also suffered a stunning mid-term election loss in 1994 when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives after forty straight years of Democrat rule. Yet, he easily won a second term—something no other Democrat has done since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Clinton wisely triangulated policy issues and effectively captured the center.
Critically important to Obama, Americans did not vote for Republicans in 2010; rather, they voted against Democrats and their agenda. Should the Republicans botch the opportunity they have been given over the next two years, Americans, especially its independent voters, will once again toss the bums out and look to Obama and the Democrats for solutions. Such is life in a two party system.
A review of the 2008 election in light of the 2010 election makes it clear that, contrary to popular belief, Americans did not vote for Obama. They voted against the Republicans and, more specifically, President George W. Bush. On September 16, 2008, based upon the aggregate polling at RealClearPolitics.com, John McCain polled ahead of Obama 46.3 percent to 45 percent. One day before, on September 15, 2008, financial giant Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, sending shockwaves through the financial markets. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted by 1,000 points. By September 17, 2008, Obama took the lead in the polls and rode the “I’m not Bush” wave into The White House.
Obama severely, but not without good reason, misread his victory as one about him and so governed over the last two years as if he had a mandate for liberal-progressive changes. In the rearview mirror of 2010, the reality is that any Democrat likely would have won by the same margin as Obama won by simply by not being the Republican candidate. Not even Reagan at his best could have beat back the anti-Republican tide in 2008.
Should the Republicans similarly misread their victory this year as anything other than a vote against Obama and the Democrats, they will find themselves voted out of office in 2014 and suffering through a second Obama term. After all, unanimous polling data shows that Americans hold both political parties in low regard.
Before apportioning too much blame to what Obama did to earn such a stunning rebuke, it is important to review what he did not do. He did not cause the recession experienced across America. The recession began before he became President due to the credit crisis created when the housing market and the financial market intertwined with it came crashing down after the Federal Reserve held interest rates too low for too long and regulators fell asleep at the wheel.
He did not cause the massive loss of jobs in most states. Many states had experienced fairly weak job markets since the dotcom and technology bubble crash of 2000. In Ohio, America’s seventh most populous state, the private sector job market reached a high of just over 4.8 million jobs in March 2000. Today, there are a mere 117,000 more private sector jobs in Ohio than there was in January 1990.
He did not place America neck deep in the quicksand that is Afghanistan. As the longest war fought by the United States, the war in Afghanistan stretches back to October 2001 and very few experts see any realistic near-term end to that war. With mounting fatalities and no clear path to victory, Obama faces stark choices no matter what he does.
He did not alter many of the key Bush policies in prosecuting the war on terror. The detention of dangerous al Qaeda members at Guantanamo Bay remains active, the Patriot Act’s key tools continue to be used by law enforcement to detect terrorist activity, and cruise missiles strike terrorist targets across the globe when necessary.
So, what did Obama do to turn independents and moderate Democrats against him just two years after his storybook victory?
He did too much. I realize that sentence sounds odd, but at a time of economic uncertainty when millions of Americans were scared about their jobs, financial stability, and families, Obama pushed legislation that magnified their uncertainty.
First, he pushed through a nearly $1 trillion stimulus package that did little other than further stimulate the coffers of the public sector unions. Instead of limiting unemployment to the 8% that his economic team promised, unemployment surged past 10 percent. Ohio has lost another 146,900 private sector jobs since Obama signed the stimulus package into law.
Next, Obama pushed for cap and trade climate change legislation that would further harm the U.S. economy. In Ohio, 83% of our power comes from coal- and gas-fired power plants, so placing a tax on fossil fuels would dramatically increase the cost of power for Ohio’s manufacturing and consumers. With the Republican gains in the U.S. Senate, the failed Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009 likely means the end to any global agreement on climate change for the foreseeable future.
In an effort to payback the labor unions that spent tens of millions getting him elected, Obama pushed for card-check legislation that would make it much easier for labor unions to unionize private sector companies. The move comes when for the first time the number of union members in the public sector exceeds the number of union members in the private sector. Among the fifty states, those states that protect a workers right not to join a union experienced more than twice the job growth since 1990 than the states, like Ohio, with compulsory union members requirements.
Contrary to the steps taken by Germany and the United Kingdom, Obama and the Federal Reserve pushed out program after program that further delayed the deleveraging needed to get America growing again. One of the key problems that led to the economic crisis was the American consumers’ use of credit—on cards and from equity in homes—to buy cars they couldn’t afford, live lifestyles well-beyond their economic means, and own homes above their income capabilities dependent upon ever-rising prices. Rather than let the market quickly and painfully correct these credit issues, Obama stalled America’s recovery by government intervention.
Finally, the tumultuous passage of Obama’s health care legislation served as the nail in his coffin for many Americans. Despite polls consistently showing a majority of Americans opposed to the federalization of health care, the Democrats forced through the legislation. As the law becomes more fully understand, its unpopularity rises. Just today my family learned that our health care premiums would be increasing in 2011 due to the coverage mandates in the new health care law.
Beyond these policy missteps, Obama and his family committed the cardinal sin in American politics: appearing to be disconnected from the economic realities of most Americans. Just as President George H.W. Bush famously appeared not to know what a grocery story scanner was during the 1992 “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” presidential election, the Obamas have spent large amounts of time on vacation in elite places like Martha’s Vineyard and Spain, acquired designer label clothes and shoes, used Air Force One for a date night in New York City at a cost of millions to taxpayers, and played 53 rounds of golf in just 21 months.
As silly as it may seem, the symbolic gesture of a president who “feels our pain” is vitally important to Americans. That emotional bond is the only thing that saved President Clinton from being convicted after he was impeached. He felt our pain and Americans rewarded him for that act by standing by him. Obama utterly fails to connect at that level and instead callously goes golfing or vacationing like a king or despot who cares little that his subjects are losing their jobs and homes.
The impact Obama’s weakened presidency and the Republican resurgence have on Europe and the transatlantic alliance is likely a mixed bag. On the positive side, the Republicans likely will halt or slow the Federal Reserve’s plan to weaken the dollar, thereby positively impacting the trade landscape with the Euro. Because Europe’s recovery is so dependent on Germany’s recovery, the dollar-Euro exchange rate should aid the export-driven nature of the Germany economy.
Diplomatically, a weakened Obama means a strengthened David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy, and European Union. Given that he already has strained relationship with Merkel and Sarkozy, stronger European relations is not likely. This temporary slide means Europe can push back on U.S. action with little to no consequences. The recent outburst regarding compliance with U.S. international flight requirements is a good example of how Europe can assert itself more aggressively against the American hegemon.
On the negative side, the hopes for great changes that many Europeans had with Obama’s election have been dashed. Any progress on climate change, human rights, the war on terror, and other key European issues is dead on arrival over the next two years.
Obama’s foreign policy weakness also means a stronger Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Should regional instability occur, the fragile global economy could slide back into recession, which would devastate the already weak recoveries in the U.S. and Europe.
After finally getting a U.S. president interested in Europe, Europeans will have to wait for a second Obama term for any extensive visits to Europe. For the next two years, Obama will be forced to focus on domestic policies related almost entirely to job creation. It goes without saying that Obama’s odds of winning re-election are almost entirely dependent on a much stronger job market in America.
Another potential negative consequence related to the jobs issue will be if Obama finally submits the free trade agreements with Columbia and South Korea to the U.S. Senate for ratification, which would increase competition with European countries.
In other foreign policy arenas, Obama’s first two years have been utter failures. His attempts at extending an olive branch to Iran with the hope that he’d get positive reactions from the Iranians have resulted in a near-nuclear Iran that has paid few consequences for its increased nuclear activity.
The likelihood of peace between Israel and the Palestinians has grown dimmer, as Obama’s weak and sporadic actions have left a void filled by more tension between and arbitrage by the parties.
In many ways, Obama’s first two years have the look and feel of a Greek tragedy: the Hero rises from the masses to defeat oppressing forces, but then the Hero ignores warnings and suffers a tragic loss. Both Reagan and Clinton were able to come back from their losses and turn their Greek tragedies into comedies with both men having the last laugh.
Unlike Reagan and Clinton, Obama’s highly partisan actions and aloofness towards Americans in fly-over country (those places between California and New York) may have permanently severed any connection he had with a majority of Americans. An economic recovery is certainly necessary for him to get reelected, but it alone may not be enough.
Obama may find that he is like Icarus: once the veneer of competency and moderation came off his persona, no amount of action can save him from his fall. Should he become a one-term failed president, it won’t be Carter’s name people refer to anymore when talking about the worst modern president.
Time will soon tell if Obama was more myth than reality all along.
This article was written by Matt Mayer while he was President of the Buckeye Institute and a Visiting Fellow with The Heritage Foundation. It originally appeared in the Atlantisch Perspectief.