Was it Joseph Kennedy who figured out that the stock market would soon crash when he heard hotel bell-boys talking about their stock purchases? Presidential politics don’t constitute a market, but I get the same kind of feeling when the likes of Eugene Robinson start bad-mouthing the Obama presidency. Perhaps it’s time to buy some of those beat-up Obama shares.
Obama’s presidency is in trouble in this sense, at least: after the election of Scott Brown, he will probably have considerable difficulty enacting legislation he wants, and after the November elections, he will probably have much more difficulty still. But I disagree with those who suggest that Obama’s presidency is cracking up.
Unless the business cycle has been repealed, a president whose favorability rating is only slightly below break-even when the unemployment rate is 10 percent can reasonably look forward, other things being equal, to positive favorability ratings within a year or two. So the question becomes, are other things equal?
The answer, I think, is not quite. The main reason lies in Obama’s left-liberal positions on national security. As long as the administration treats terrorists as criminal defendants and otherwise fails to act in ways commensurate with the threat we face, his policies in this realm will continue to be a drag on his popularity. And a major, successful terrorist attack could be politically devastating.
But when I read that Obama’s presidency may be cracking up, the focus is not on his policies regarding terrorism. The focus instead is on the president’s arrogance and seeming difficulty adjusting to the reality that he is now seen as a regular political player, rather than a virtual deity.
To me, Obama’s arrogance is undeniable. But whether it will translate into a long term inability to make good political decisions remains to be seen. First, although Obama has made his share of bad decisions (as one would expect from someone so inexperienced), the extent to which he has done so is exaggerated.
For example, although I thought it was a mistake for Obama to push for health care reform before our economic difficulties abated, this was a close call. With a little luck, Obama would have already enacted what he thinks is a good bill. Moreover, waiting would have presented the considerable risk that Obama would never again have the benefit of the post-2008 margins in Congress in his quest to reform health care.
I doubt there are many presidents who would have resisted the temptation to push aggressively for transformative legislation given these margins. Indeed, other presidents might well have taken more control over the process than Obama did with health care. Although it was, I think, a mistake for Obama not to have done so, this was not an irrational decision either, given what happened during the Clinton administration.
Second, there is already evidence that Obama is adjusting to reality. We’ll have a better sense of this after tomorrow night’s speech, but we already see the president re-positioning himself in the spending debate, for example. And Obama seems to be cleaning up the way he speaks about America when he’s abroad, as evidenced by his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
I don’t expect Obama to avoid a big defeat for his party in November. Voters, it seems to me, are pretty clear that they want Democrats to have less power, and this will probably be true even if the economy improves and the Democrats show a little more restraint.
But the state of the economy will be front-and-center in 2012. If it is in the midst of a major recovery by then, voters may well start to see in Obama some semblance of that smart, cool, pragmatist they thought they elected.
UPDATE: I’m told that if I change Joe Kennedy to Bernard Baruch and bell-boys to shoeshine boy, the first sentence of this post will be dead-on.
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