Like it or not, the midterm election is shaping up as a referendum on President Obama. His dizzying descent from the stratosphere of popularity to the kind of middling job approval associated with lesser talents could cost Democrats their majority in the House as well as effective control of the Senate. The only saving grace for Democrats is the roster of fringe candidates the GOP has served up, and the hope that voters will reject the change these Tea Party insurgents represent.
It’s been only two years since Barack Obama was the candidate of change and hope, and theories abound about what went wrong. They all have some merit, and it’s not too late for Obama to raise the level of his game. It’s heartening to see that he’s taking a break from his vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, a haven for the privileged East Coast elite, to fly to New Orleans on Sunday to mark the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Critics will say he’s responding to political attacks that he’s out of touch, and he’ll be faulted for catering to the 24/7 cable chatter.
That’s the nature of the modern presidency, but even more so with Obama, who as the first black president reinforces the myth of America as a colorblind society, and it’s so much more complicated than that. The satirical newspaper, The Onion, got it right in their post-election headline BLACK MAN GIVEN NATION’S WORST JOB. Even back in those heady days, the prospect of a failed presidency loomed given the scale of the challenges. Republicans consoled themselves with the high probability that whoever was president, the decisions ahead would take such a huge toll politically that the pendulum of power would swing back to them.
But who could have predicted that the GOP would be complicit in aiding and abetting Obama’s downfall. Yet that’s what Republicans did in obstructing and delaying every step along the way, even legislation they supported, to the point where Congress’s approval rating is 11 percent, the lowest in recorded polling history. Obama is not blameless, and when the history of his administration is written, the original sin in my view was his failure to fully use his 53 percent mandate from the American people, a greater share of the vote than either of his two immediate predecessors. He went as a supplicant to Congress, treating lawmakers as equals, spending far too much time chasing a bipartisan consensus that turned out to be a mirage created on the campaign trail.
Obama’s aversion to confrontation, which worked so well for him as a candidate, has made him appear too pliable and even weak as a president. His overall poll ratings have held up pretty well considering the battering he’s taking, but his image as a strong leader had its greatest drop between February and June of this year, even as he was racking up major achievements with the passage of universal health care and the biggest overhaul of the financial system since the days of FDR. He’s an intellectual, a teacher, and for all his rhetorical gifts he hasn’t found a language of emotion that can persuade voters he is fighting for them. Bill Clinton survived impeachment by going before the cameras every day to insist he was doing the work of the people and wouldn’t let the scandal distract him. Americans believed him and he finished his term with high approval ratings.
A lot of the carping about Obama comes down to his Olympian style, but there’s nothing wrong with Obama that a better economy wouldn’t fix. Clinton had it right in ’92, it’s the economy, stupid. Obama’s critics on the left were right when they warned that he did not act boldly enough. A president has limited tools at his command in a market-based economy, and Obama placed too much trust in his pedigreed economic team, Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, whose policies brought their buddies on Wall Street back from the brink but lost the trust of Middle America.
Think how different it might have been if Obama had put the country on an emergency footing, rallied the people behind his program, and demanded that Congress act. GOP leader John Boehner may be onto something when he says Obama should fire Geithner. A shakeup might be in order. People are scared, and they’re projecting their anxiety and anger onto Obama. It’s not just the U.S. economy that’s suffering; there is a global downturn. Obama does not have the power to fix it; no single leader does. But he can do what Clinton did, and that is to focus like a laser beam on the economy. Instead, he’s asked for television time to address the nation next week about Iraq. The time for that was earlier in August when the last of the combat troops rolled into Kuwait. Voters want to know what Obama is doing to create jobs, and if he doesn’t get the message soon, he will in November.
Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.