Walter Russel Mead asks the question.
Can the Obama Presidency still be saved?
To some, the question may seem premature or even insulting. President Obama’s personal popularity remains high and the most recent RealClearPolitics poll average has him at a more than respectable 47.6 percent approval; while the President’s popularity is drifting lower, congressional Republicans have been losing ground to their Democratic rivals in recent polls, and the Republican primary field remains both uninspiring and polarized. Small government, libertarian and Jeffersonian Paulites, globalist ‘great nation’ conservatives, conservative social activists and Jacksonian hyperpatriots are united only in their antipathy to the Obama administration and it is not yet clear whether a GOP candidate can unify this agitated but inchoate mass of energy into a strong and focused campaign.
Nevertheless it seems increasingly clear that the Obama presidency has lost its way; at home and abroad it flounders from event to event, directionless and passive as one report after another “unexpectedly” shows an economy that refuses to heal. Most recently, the IMF has cut its growth forecast for the United States in 2011 and 2012. With growth predicted at 2.5 percent this year and 2.7 percent next, unemployment is unlikely to fall significantly before Election Day. On the same day, the latest survey of consumer sentiment shows an “unexpectedly sharp” dip in consumer confidence. The economy is not getting well; geopolitically, the US keeps adding new countries to the bomb list, but the President has fallen strangely silent about the five wars he is fighting (Iraq, Afghanistan, tribal Pakistan, Libya and now Yemen).
The problem is only partly that the President’s policies don’t appear to be working. Presidents fail to be re-elected less because their policies aren’t working than because they have lost control of the narrative. FDR failed to end the Depression during two terms in office but kept the country’s confidence through it all. Richard Nixon hadn’t ended the Vietnam War in 1972 and George W. Bush hadn’t triumphed in what we still knew as the Global War on Terror in 2004. In all these cases, however, the presidents convinced voters that they understood the problem, that they were working on it, and that their opponents were clueless throwbacks who would only make things worse.
Barak Obama was elected largely because he was a blank slate on which the electorate could project their hopes and dreams. He was a good campaigner who took full advantage of that fact. He has not been so good at actually governing or leading. He seems to be in far over his head, which is no surprise since the presidency is the first job he has held in which he has actually had to manage anything. He is more inclined to blame the country’s problems on the previous administration than to create new policies to resolve them. And, as Mead has been writing, what he calls the “Blue Social Model” has been breaking down and it is not entirely clear what will replace it. The times call for strong leadership and we are not getting it.
Americans are realistic enough to understand that the breakdown of the blue social model is a messy process and that perhaps no president can deliver a pain free transition to the next stage. But what they aren’t hearing from President Obama is a compelling description of what has gone wrong, how it can be fixed, and how the policies he proposes will take us to the next level.
What they hear from this administration are defensive responses: Hooveresque calls for patience mingled with strange-sounding attacks on ATMs and sharp, opportunistic jabs at former President Bush. The White House has responded to strategic challenges at home and abroad with tactical maneuvers.
Voters sense that we live in historic times that demand leadership of a different kind. What does President Obama think about the fiscal squeeze forcing trade-offs between state employee benefits and services to the poor? How much trouble is the American middle class in — and what changes are needed to save it?
The President of the United States has to own this conversation. His vision, his initiatives must dominate the political scene. His opponents may fight him and defeat his proposals in Congress — that is not the worst thing that can happen. Harry Truman did very well running against a ‘do-nothing’ Congress in 1948.
At a time of historic anxiety and tension like the present, the President of the United States cannot be an administrator, a fence-sitter, a finger-pointer. He must first and foremost stand for something — and he must be able to make that something resonate with the voters. The President’s job is to lead.
So, can this presidency be saved? Do we really want to? My answer to both questions is no.