It's Not About Obama, It's About Maintaining a Viable Opposition

In a post this morning, Ben did a good job of capturing the gist of the conversation following the attempted Christmas Day attack: does the Obama administration deserve the blame, or did Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab slip through cracks that were beyond administration control? The administration is scrambling to deal with poorly worded responses by its own officials plus attacks from Dick Cheney in Politico to Rep. Pete Hoekstra's Twitter account. And now we've entered the backlash-to-the-backlash phase, as exemplified by an impressively detailed report in Politico that demonstrates a double standard in reaction to Barack Obama and George W. Bush's handling of similar incidents.

But is this really about Barack Obama? Put in the context of the political Sturm und Drang of the last few months, that seems doubtful. A more convincing interpretation is that Republicans are grasping for something, anything, with which to attack Obama now that his political outlook is improving. Things were looking up for Republicans for a while this summer. Obama's poll numbers began to slip from their early levels (an encouraging if not unexpected indicator for the GOP), public support for health care dimmed, the public option was buried (and reburied, and reburied), and the administration seemed generally adrift on its foreign policy, with reportedly heated disagreements on Afghanistan between a dovish Joe Biden and more hawkish administration voices. Since then, however, the tide has turned back. Let's go to the tape:

  • On Dec. 1, Obama delivered his plan for Afghanistan at West Point. Although not as hawkish as some Republicans would have hoped, it was still a generally aggressive speech that left little room to the right (the main complaint seemed to be the start date for withdrawals, with cabinet members promptly began walking back the next day).
  • Last week, after a bruising months-long battle, the Senate passed health-care reform, with Democrats emerging bloodied but unbowed. Reconciling the House and Senate bills will surely be a nasty affair as well, but Harry Reid won a huge victory and brought reform far closer to fruition by successfully passing a bill that many, if not all, progressives like. And, of course, that makes it an equally big defeat for conservatives who had hoped all along that they would find a way to derail the bill by hook, crook, or filibuster.
  • The economy is slowly, painfully, but surely, improving. The bad news for Obama is that a 0.2 percent drop in unemployment isn't going to make a lot of people happy, but slightly better numbers along with economic growth make it much harder for Republicans to score points on the issue.
  • Democrats were, at least until Christmas, looking much stronger on national security than they had before. The decision to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to trial in New York City still isn't popular, and Obama's numbers on handling terror were down but still easily within the margin of error. Officials won a major public-relations victory by stopping Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant arrested in September and charged with plotting terror attacks in the U.S., and Obama's response to the Fort Hood massacre was well received. (Here are several relevant poll numbers.)
  • There's no question that the White House would like to be running better, but Real Clear Politics's average shows not only that Obama's job approval is still respectable, his numbers are starting to stabilize after a long period of decline.
  • Finally, in a longer-term trend, polls─like this one released in May by the left-leaning nonprofit Democracy Corps─suggest that after years of being seen as the weaker party on national security, Democrats have begun to close the gap, or, depending on whom you believe, perhaps have even reached parity.

Where does that leave an opposition party? Against that challenging background, Republicans have almost no choice but to hope that the underpants-bomber kerfuffle will help them regain some of the summer's momentum.