So, it's August and Barack Obama's approval rating is barely above 50% and only 40% of Americans think the country is heading in the right direction. The President's legislative agenda - to say nothing of its eventual cost - is frightening folk and the days of "No Drama Obama" seem like a story from the distant past, totally at odds with the current febrile political mood in the United States. No wonder the traditional comparisons with poor old Jimmy Carter are appearing. Already.
Has the new President bitten off more than he can chew? Plenty of pundits seem to think so. Is he betraying his promise to the American people? Peggy Noonan, for one, seems to think so. And perhaps she is right. Certainly, governing is more difficult than campaigning. But the instant obituaries may be premature.
Taking office in the midst of a full-scale banking crisis and an alarmingly sharp recession, Obama passed his stimulus bill and embarked on two major, difficult, legislative projects: cap and trade for climate change and healthcare reform. This latter has been a White Whale that has defeated Presidents from both parties. Even LBJ baulked at trying to pass comprehensive healthcare reform. All that’s missing from Obama’s agenda is an immigration bill.
Individually, these are serious, even daunting tasks. Trying to do it all in the same year demonstrates either spectacular confidence or, alternatively, the folly and hubris of Presidential ambition. In the circumstances, it’s hardly a surprise that the public is confused, perhaps even feeling swamped by the complexity of the issues and the speed with which the new President wants to move.
“Never waste a crisis” is a tempting, often useful maxim. But it’s also dangerous because it makes it easy for the opposition to say, “Hang on a minute! Why the rush? What are you trying to slip past us? All this activity must be hiding something”.
That’s not an entirely unreasonable position to take, even if it is necessarily an obstructive one. But the administration’s calculations make sense too, even if they too necessarily involve considerable risk. Clinton’s healthcare plans failed disastrously but at least they failed early. True, the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 but by 1996 the mistakes and blunders of Clinton’s first years in power were, if not forgotten, put to one side as the economy propelled him to a second term.
The value of political capital can, as we know, go down as well as up. but from the administration’s point of view there’d be little upside in waiting for economic recovery before trying to reform healthcare. Doing healthcare was always going to be controversial and difficult and a mess. Better, surely, to do it now, rather than risk having a fight over healthcare compromise and even devalue the political gain that comes with economic recovery.
Equally, given that the mid-term elections tend to punish the party controlling the White House (2002 was an obvious exception for obvious reasons) the incentives lie with doing it now while there are more Democrats in Washington than there may be in 2011. Success is easier now and failure less catastrophic than it would be at any other moment in the political cycle.
And in the end this August froth and fury (from partisans on both sides) will pass. Despite the challenges of navigating a channel flanked by conservative Democrats in the Senate and lefties in the House, the administration is (probably!) going to pass some kind of healthcare reform. It won’t be as ambitious as some would like, nor as comprehensive as some dared dream might be possible six months ago. But it will, again probably, be more than Democrats could have hoped for back when Howard Dean was the darling of the left and, for a moment, seemed on course to win the party’s nomination in 2004. (Of course, that moment was before any actual votes were cast.)
The great and the good in Washington hate all this. For them bipartisanship is the Holy Grail. Having a majority and using it is terribly vulgar. This, it must be said, is especially true when there’s a Democrat in the White House. (Though it is also true that there were times when Washington lamented the brutal partisanship of the Bush years too. But the Washington Post was less concerned with the need to purchase moderate Democratic votes then than it is by Obama’s failure to mollify the few remaining moderate Republicans.) Washington still thinks of itself as a quiet, sleepy, cordial, genteel, southern kind of town. All this brawling and shouting is terribly unseemly.
But that’s the way it goes these days. There’s stridency and absurdity on display on both sides of the aisle as each side accuses the other of being - gasp! - un-American. (There’s so much un-americanness flying about these days that it can be tough to remember what “American” can mean).
Some of the concerns also reflect a sense - felt most keenly I guess by centrist, upscale white voters - that President Obama is not quite the fellow they thought he would be. That is, those voters most attracted by Obama’s calmness, his poise, his freshness and his, not to put too fine a point on it, style on the campaign trail are also those voters most likely to be disappointed that many of Obama’s policies are hewn from traditional Democratic cloth. No-one promised otherwise, however. Obama’s brilliance was to package traditional liberal concerns in a post-partisan, even post-politics wrapping. This is not a mysterious confidence trick: it was always there.
During the campaign there many occasions in which Obama was encouraged to throw a punch or two. Generally, he resisted the temptation to do so, preferring to take a longer view. I wonder -one can’t be sure of these things - if something similar is happening now.
The impression is that Republicans are managing to water down the healthcare bill and, in some respects, their scorched-earth rhetoric is having an impact. But it may also be that conservatives are winning minor victories while losing ground in the longer-term battle. That contest won’t be decided this summer or even next year, but in 2012 and beyond.
In other words: it is still early days but there are strong strategic reasons for Obama to embrace the fierce urgency of now even if it means taking his lumps and even risking losing control of the “narrative”. Candidate Obama played the long game and I suspect President Obama has that in mind too.
Also, folks, it’s August. Crazy things happen in August and they always seem terribly important and decisive at the time. Later and in hindsight, not so much. This may - may, I say - be just another summer tempest that eventually blows itself out.