How bad do things look for Barack Obama? Some historical perspective is useful. His approval ratings after one year in office are about the same as Ronald Reagan's or Jimmy Carter's and, in fact, are a bit higher than Bill Clinton's. The Bushes fared better than all three of them, but for unusual reasons: 41 because he presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union in his first year in office, and 43 because the nation rallied around him after 9/11. As the economy improves, Obama's numbers will surely rebound somewhat.
Still, last week's special election in Massachusetts is a sign that Obama has a big problem. The public has clearly registered a protest vote against him, congressional Democrats, and their signature policy proposal: the health-care bill. The size of the swing, the issues raised during the campaign and in exit polls, and the migration of independents all suggest that Obama is confronting not just generalized anger but dissatisfaction with the course that the ruling party has taken. How he responds will shape the rest of his term.
A great debate has begun on the nature of that response. My own advice would be simple: Barack Obama needs to act like a president, especially the president he campaigned to become.
In his enduring treatise, The American Commonwealth, James Bryce, a British writer who toured the United States in the late 19th century, observed that the Founding Fathers had created a president who would, in a crucial sense, resemble the British king, "not only in being the head of the executive, but in standing apart from and above political parties. He was to represent the nation as a whole … The independence of his position, with nothing either to gain or to fear from Congress, would, it was hoped, leave him free to think only of the welfare of the people."
Obama began his presidency in this vein. In his response to the economic crisis, he steered a clear middle course, refusing to accept the left's cries for bank nationalization but also adopting a far more vigorous and Keynesian approach than the right could accept. In foreign policy, he reset America's image in the world in a manner that earned him kudos from the likes of James Baker and Brent Scowcroft. But that broader, presidential approach was partly set aside in passing the fiscal stimulus and then abandoned altogether in the drive to change the American health-care system.
Over the past six months—which have correlated with his dramatic drop in the polls—Obama has behaved less like a president and more like a prime minister. He has not outlined a broad vision for the country. He has not embraced the best solutions—from left and right—for the nation's problems. Instead he has behaved as the head of the Democratic Party in Congress, working almost entirely with and through that caucus, slicing and dicing policy proposals to cobble together legislative majorities. He has allowed the great policy program of his presidency to be written and defined by a collection of congressional Democrats, accepting the lopsided bills that emerged and the corruption inherent in the process.
If he represents all the people, Obama should remember that for 85 percent of Americans, the great health-care crisis is about cost. For about 15 percent, it is about extending coverage. Yet his plan does little about the first and focuses mostly on the second. It promotes too little of the real discipline that would force costs down, and instead throws in a few ideas, experiments, and pilot programs that could, over time and if rigorously expanded, do so. It is a bill written by legislators to ensure that they never have to do anything unpopular.
Watching the legislative process, Bismarck allegedly observed, is like watching the making of sausages. You see and smell a lot of crap that makes you wince. (Those are my words, not Bismarck's.) The Senate health-care bill is particularly sausage-like. It has special exemptions on future costs for five states, exemptions for unions, concessions of various kinds to almost every special interest in the industry, and of course no reform at all of the crazy legal system because the trial-lawyers bar remains untouchable for the Democratic Party.
Defenders argue that Obama has only acted realistically. Focusing too intently on cost reduction would have alienated all the same forces—insurance companies, Big Pharma—that derailed health-care reform under Bill Clinton. But the result is one that few can honestly call "reform," and one that has steadily lost support as it has moved through Congress. In a Wall Street Journal poll conducted last week, Obama fared reasonably well on all attributes of leadership. His lowest scores came when respondents were asked whether they agreed with his proposals, and whether he had changed the way business was done in Washington.
True, the Republican Party has decided to be utterly uncooperative (although on health care Obama never really reached out to them with serious compromises). But whether or not Republican senators would at first reward Obama for adopting a more nonpartisan approach, independent voters would, which would change the political calculus in Washington. Rahm Emanuel quipped that the task was not to get health-care legislation through "the executive committee of the Brookings Institution, but the U.S. Congress." In fact, proposals that would impress experts would also impress tens of millions of independents, the vast middle ground where elections are won and lost in America. That is how Bill Clinton outmaneuvered Newt Gingrich, and how Tony Blair outfoxed the Tory party for 10 years.
On health care, energy, taxes, immigration, deficits, and everything else, Obama should get away from the politics of legislating and go back to being president. He should put forward the best proposals to help solve America's problems. He may or may not get much support from Republicans, but he will earn political capital and power, which in the long run is the only way to enact a big, transforming agenda. This approach is exactly what Obama campaigned on. He promised that he would reach out to all sections of the country, listen to the best ideas, and appeal to the nation as a whole. "I don't see a blue America and a red America, I see only the United States of America," he said. Obama needs to shift course and govern as the president he promised to become. That's change I could believe in.