Obama’s Failure of Leadership

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I continue to believe that the passage of universal health care is an historic achievement, and that Glenn Beck’s grandchildren will agree even if he and his followers are blind to it. But getting it through a Congress wary of major social legislation and beholden to special interests was a 14-month horror show that consumed the Obama presidency.

With the proviso that no good deed goes unpunished, Democrats are bracing for significant losses in the midterms, provoked by a backlash over government spending, and by disappointment in President Obama’s performance. After hanging back too long, Obama has finally gotten off the mat and joined the fight, setting aside his bromides to bipartisanship and punching away like a politician who wants to win, not make nice.

The campaign trail is good practice because he’ll have to become more confrontational once the election is over. Tea Party Republicans have no inclination to work with Democrats, and they’re likely to displace the few reasonable Republicans that are left. It’s hard to see where the grand bargain can be made or the deals struck to begin to address deficit spending. With nothing but stalemate and gridlock ahead, things may have to get worse, and then who will we blame?

Obama took office not wanting to fight or blame anyone, and the Republicans played him. They stood up to him and he wasn’t prepared to defy them, revealing a vulnerability that has brought the Democrats to the brink of disaster. Obama ran on the idea that his election was a sign that everybody was going to get along but he also ran on a platform, and he won with 53 percent of the vote, the biggest margin of any Democrat since LBJ. Instead of claiming his rightful mandate, he made getting along his top priority, extending an olive branch to the other side, which Republican leaders rebuffed.

When it became evident during Obama’s first 100 days that the GOP wanted him to fail and would work hard to make that dream come true, he should have stopped chasing after the false gods of bipartisanship. The GOP is destined to win a bunch of seats despite their ongoing low approval ratings, and the unpopularity of their record, and many of their proposals. They are winning because conservatives hate Democrats more than Republicans and liberals are disheartened, and Republicans have done a better job exploiting the anger than Obama has tamping it down.

Obama’s background as a community organizer may be hampering him as president. While his supporters still like him, they’re not so sure he has what it takes to bring about the hope and change he promised and excited the base. A community organizer empowers people to do things for themselves, and in government, you have to lead and order and direct, and that’s not Obama’s style, even though Republicans call him autocratic and Rush Limbaugh calls him “Ayatollah Obama.” Obama has had a lot of success in politics and academia, and on the mean streets of Chicago, by reaching consensus, and he expected to apply that life lesson now that he’s at the pinnacle of power, and it didn’t work.

I’m loath to admit it, but I think there’s been a failure of leadership in this White House. Why else would a party on the verge of extinction less than two years ago be poised to take over one or perhaps both chambers of Congress? Hillary Clinton would have been tougher than Obama as president, but Republicans would have found her vulnerability and exploited it. I don’t think Obama’s supporters have buyer’s remorse, but they’re struggling to understand where Obama lost the magic and became the piñata for all the country’s ills. Republicans and the business community have been so successful in blaming Obama that if the next two years are like the last two years, he won’t get reelected.

After the ’08 election, polls found that a majority of Republicans thought they had lost ground because their party wasn’t conservative enough. Most analysts thought that way off base, and that the GOP needed to spend some time in the political wilderness to come to their senses, and move back to the middle. Instead they’ve tacked so far to the right that Ronald Reagan looks like a moderate and Newt Gingrich, the original bomb thrower, is considered mainstream enough to be taken seriously as a likely presidential candidate.

The ascendancy of the right has put Democrats on the defensive. A Hoover Institution study shows that House Democrats who voted for two out of three of Obama’s signature proposals (health care, the stimulus, and cap-and-trade energy policy) are likely to lose, a formula that would give the Republicans 43 seats, enough to take control of the chamber. There’s so little out there from Democrats on the merits of those proposals, and other core issues that separate them from Republicans, Democrats almost deserve to lose.

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