August 16, 2011
The Zeitgeist Gap

—“The time for putting party first is over. The time for compromise on behalf of the American people is now.” Barack Obama, July 29, 2011

Barack Obama wants to be the President in times when the quote above describes the spirit of the day. He desperately wants to be President when Americans, both in Washington and out of it, work creatively and effectively on big solutions to the nation’s troubles.

I believe he is sincere about this. I believe he really wants to be president in the post-partisan America many commentators imagined would arise with his election in 2008.

But he isn’t.

Instead, he’s President at a time when Mitch McConnell, R-KY, the Senate majority leader, can say time and again, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” One in which right wing radio host Rush Limbaugh noted, “I hope he fails,” even before Obama took office.

I think a lot of the Obama’s problems, and a lot of the reason many liberals and progressives are growing disenchanted with the Obama Presidency, can be explained by the fact that Obama keeps trying to be President of a post-partisan America even as the nation has hardened ideologically, and even as his opponents have made undermining his presidency the heart of their political agenda.

This is the best explanation I can find of Obama’s deal on the debt ceiling. He STARTED at a position most Republicans would have died for even a year ago, pre-tea party, and “negotiated” from there. His health care and global climate change proposals started life as Republican programs. (That’s why “Obamacare” looks a lot like “Romneycare,” and in any other election cycle, Romney would be touting its successes in Massachusetts, not running from them.)

Likewise, it’s the best explanation I can come up with for the apparent “debate” in the administration about Obama’s reelection campaign—should he be more partisan, or should he be focused on the supposed desire of independents that politics be more bipartisan?

In both cases, Obama starts from the position that “the other side”—whether Republicans in Congress or independents whose votes he needs—are reasonable, moderate people who want good policies made in Washington, DC.

Which is a lovely sentiment. It’s just not true.

It’s not that Republicans—especially those active in politics today—are crazy. It’s that they’re ideological. They have strong points of view and fight for them. They’re willing to lose if they fight on their principles. Indeed, from their point of view the fight matters more than the policy since the fight undermines the Obama presidency and enhances the chances that he will be a one term president.

Unfortunately, the gap between Obama’s desired presidency and the one he actually has causes at least two major problems for him and his supporters.

First, as I have stated on this blog before, you can’t negotiate with “no.” If you want something, and the other side is willing to let things blow it up rather than give it to you, then you have to concede an enormous amount of ground, perhaps well past the opposition’s starting point, to get the opposition to agree to your goal. You’re constantly persuading the enemies of your point of view to support it by giving in to their demands and more, while getting very little out of it. You are unilaterally disarming yourself before the fight begins, only to discover that your opponents have recently been to the gun store.

Second, you dishearten your core supporters. You tell those people who organized for you and fought for you and gave you money that, in the end, you care more about getting something—anything—done than you do about what actually gets done. So, naturally, those who once supported you naturally begin to ask themselves, if I supported this person and I got policies more favorable to my opponents than even my opponents wanted a few months ago, why should I bother supporting “my guy” again? This is true even if you are successful in major policy areas—like health care. "VOTE FOR ME BECAUSE IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN EVEN WORSE" is a terrible campaign slogan.

Ironically, and this needn’t have happened but it has, Obama appears to have lost the independents he hoped to capture by being post-partisan: his approval rating is at its lowest point in his term, and is low by comparison to most other presidents at this point in their terms. It’s MUCH LOWER than it was for presidents who got reelected.

As it happens, I’m a realist and a pragmatist. It’s been said that politics is the art of the possible. Presidents always disappoint because they’re not elected dictators who can compel action with a glance. Congress, the Courts, the media, interest groups and voters all get to check and balance the president’s powers. Effective action requires compromise.

But in enacting a post-partisan presidency in a hyper-partisan age, Barack Obama seems to have missed the zeitgeist. He may yet be reelected—I find this likely, still—but it won’t be because of his presidency. It will be because the Republicans may nominate someone so ultra partisan that the vast majority of voters will have to vote for an Obama they’re disappointed in to avoid a Republican they’re horrified by. (And I think they’ll think that about Rick Perry once he’s a known, rather than an unknown, candidate.)

Which is not really all that much to hang a reelection on, if you know what I mean.

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  3. restlessuniverse reblogged this from politicalprof and added:
    The most succinct explanation I’ve read yet as to what’s gone wrong.
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