So Barack Obama's approval rating in Iowa has slipped below 50%. Indeed, he receives negative ratings from Iowans in every area except foreign policy. So much for all that Hope and Change, eh? Well, not quite. As a savvy Democratic lobbyist emails:
There's a lot to this. In the first place, the Carter and Bush presidencies were, in the end, so disastrous (or considered disastrous) that they permitted the election of candidates who might, in more placid, less desperate times have been too extreme, too strange and too risky for the electorate to take a chance upon. Even then, Reagan was rather more conservative than many voters appreciated; similarly Obama is a more orthoox liberal than many supposed.“
More and more, the overlays between Obama and Reagan seem to match. Succeeding disastrous presidencies, charm/star power, awful off year elections, bad first mid-term, laggard economy on the cusp of growth, and a badly fractured opposition trying to figure out purity vs. change within their own ranks. Reagan was, of course, unabashedly conservative and more and more, it seems that pre-presidency predictions of Obama as a closet moderate were wrong.
I don't think people should be surprised by this but it appears many are. Obama has a passion for bipartisan cover - or, at least, for being seen to offer the prospect of a bipartisan approach to policy - but he has never been a fan of Broderist centrism or bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship. On the contrary, Obama's approach is to use the centre as a means of advancing liberal goals. There's a reason Obama won support from liberals during the Democratic primaries and it wasn't just a matter of his opposition to the Iraq War (though that, for sure, was a vital, even necessary condition for his rise.)
There's nothing underhand or devious about this and, as they say, elections have consequences. Just as Reaganism was able to take advantage of Democratic disarray, so Obama has a chance to use the Republican party's exhaustion to fundamentally redraw the board on which the political game is played.
This can't be done in 12 or even 24 months but it can't be done at all unless the groundwork is prepared in the first two years of his Presidency. If that means risking, or perhaps even guaranteeing, heavy losses in the midterms then so be it.
And despite the polls, it's worth remembering that Obama's position is not as weak as Reagan's was for much of his first term. In January 1983, Reagan's popularity rating fell to 35% and, in fact, Reagan's average approval rating as President was just 53%. So let's hesitate before writing Obama off just yet.
At the moment, as Ross Douthat, happily back blogging after a six month hiatus, says, Obama is not being challenged by the Republican party. Like the Democrats in Reagan's first term the GOP is good at saying No, less effective when it comes to putting forth alternative policies - especially on domestic matters. The danger is that the party will draw the wrong conclusions from encouraging election results next year and that this will delay the reform project by at least another electoral mini-cycle. In other words, given the choice between a conservative Mondale type and a Republican equivalent of Gary Hart, the GOP, like the Democrats in 1984, may prefer the comfy orthodoxy of the Mondale figure.
Now clearly, historical comparisons are never exact. Nonetheless, assuming the economy recovers then you can bet that Democrats will argue that it was the stimulus what done it and you can further bet that plenty of voters will be happy to nod and agree with this proposition. And if health insurance reform passes and if Afghanistan looks less problematic in a year's time, well, you can see where a second term is coming from, can't you? Sure, there remains the deficit and I'm sceptical that Congressional Democrats are really terribly interested in tackling that but economic recovery will create some greater room for tackling the deficit in a second term. Equally, if the economy recovers, voters may be less concerned by aspects of the liberal agenda that, at present, they find disconcerting.
Granted, there are plenty of ifs there. But that's always the case. Like Reagan a generation ago, one sense that Obama realises that he has the opportunity to redraw the map. He can be a consequential President whose legacy is such that it defines or shapes the parameters within which his successors must operate. He may not succeed, but the scale of the Republican crisis and the depth of the hole he found himself in at the beginning of his presidency give him a chance to be the heir to LBJ liberals have been waiting for.
The existence of the chance doesn't guarantee success, but it's a long, long game that will not be decided in 2009 or 2010. We are still, despite the temptation to think otherwise, in the opening stages.