How should one measure political success? That was my first reaction to Julia Pettengill's Standpoint article headlined Is the Obama Presidency Failing? Sensible, I suppose, for Standpoint to present this as a question to be debated, not a verdict that had already been delivered. And it's bad luck on Ms Pettengill that her piece should have been commissioned after Scott Brown's triumph in Massachusetts and filed before health care reform was passed. Such are the perils of journalism.
Nevertheless the article is instructive, not least because of how it is organised and the extent to which it reflects certain strands of Washington's brand of conventional wisdom. Since the author spends much time talking to some of Obama's conservative critics and very little time with his supporters it's not wholly surprising that Pettengill suggests that the President is failing and that he's doing so because he's not "listening" to the people and because he's far too "partisan" and "ideological".
This reflects a curious conservative view, namely that although liberals may win elections from time to time they should never interpret those victories as any kind of a mandate for liberalism. For that matter, Pettengill never lets the reader know that on a range of issues Obama has disappointed the left just as much as he has infuriated the right. On civil liberties issues, much to the irritation of liberals and libertarians alike, his Justice Department has retained perhaps 80% of the infrastructure it inherited from the Bush administration while the health care bill, whatever else one may say of it, is a long way from being the left's idea of a perfect or even semi-perfect bill. Indeed one can certainly make an argument that in as much as Obama's rating have fallen this is as much a feature of liberal disenchantment as centrist disapproval.
In truth it's a mixture of both. But if one tries to stand back and look at his Presidency with some measure of objectivity then one might be forced to admit that passing both the stimulus package, however flawed it may be, and a monumental health care bill that, again, despite its problems, has been a progressive Holy Grail for 40 years have to be considered significant achievements. In other words, successful Presidencies - at least according to one definition of success - get their agenda through Congress; failing ones don't. (And, yes, by this measure George W Bush's first term could also be considered successful. At least in part.)
Michael Barone has forgotten as much about American politics as most of us are ever likely to know but that simply makes his argument, quoted by Pettengill, that "In five decades of closely following American politics, I have never seen the Democratic Party in worse shape," seem even sillier. If that's his verdict on the Democrats when they control the White House, Senate and House what can he think of the Republican party's prospects?
My old chum Toby Harnden also thinks that Obama remains in big trouble and he may be right. But, look, Pettengill's piece gives but the briefest of passing mentions to the state of the economy. But if anything is going to damage the administration it's unemployment and sluggish, perhaps even neglibible, growth, not whether conservatives remain opposed to the White House's agenda.
That's one reason why we can expect Republican gains to be misinterpreted or, perhaps, over-interpreted this November. Yes, health care may play a part and yes so will spending and government indebtedness and so too, perhaps, will some questions about military commissions and the like, but overall it will be the economy that counts most. And, of course, the mid-terms almost always favour the party that doesn't hold the White House. Despite this we can expect Republican gains to be heralded as some kind of revolutionary novelty offering more proof that Obama is going to be a one-term President.
Perhaps that will indeed prove to be the case but it is far too soon to predict this with any serious level of confidence. Apart from anything else, in the midst of a pretty horrific recession, his approval rating still remains around the 50% mark. Or, to put it another way, after what his critics tell us has been a disastrous year marked by failure after failure a President supposedly radically out of step with the American mainstream remains in a reasonably healthy position.
This doesn't mean that Obama will cruise to re-election (it's too early to say that too!) but given the success he has enjoyed during a difficult year it's not daft to suppose that it's a little too soon to be writing his political obituary. And this is, obviously I should have thought, the case even if one does not necessarily approve of everything, or even anything, that he has done.
One thing I am pretty confident about, however, is that this suggestion, made by Pettengill, will a) not come to pass and b) fail miserably even in the monstrously lmprobable likelihood it did:
No, I don't think so.“
There has even been some speculation that Senator Evan Bayh's withdrawal from the Indiana Democratic primary was not only a repudiation of the party's leadership but also a signal that he may challenge Obama in the Democratic primaries for the 2012 Presidential election.