Without a doubt, these are difficult days for Barack Obama. With a job approval rating in the 40s, with voters threatening to desert the Democrats in the midterms, and with no sign of events breaking his way, the heady days following his inauguration seem a dim and distant memory.
Some in Washington blame the Republicans, as well as their allies on talk radio and cable, but the GOP controls neither the executive nor the legislative branches of government. Their losses in 2006 and 2008 have rendered them powerless to stop virtually any legislation favored by the White House. Indeed, with firm majorities in both houses of Congress, the president has pushed through major legislation, from the stimulus package to health care and banking regulation.
Others allege poor communication on the administration’s part, but that won’t wash, either. Obama remains today what he always was, a personally appealing man, and a superbly gifted orator, arguably the most eloquent since Ronald Reagan. He’s done a credible job explaining and defending his policies and programs. Most people who follow politics even on a cursory level know where he stands and why.
Still others blame the White House’s response to the Gulf oil spill, but that’s dubious as well. Its political troubles were brewing months before that event overtook the country.
Truth be told, the seeds for the president’s political decline, and that of his Democratic allies in Congress, were sown shortly after the inauguration, ironically by something bad that actually didn’t happen.
That something was the end of life as we know it in America.
As of Obama’s inauguration, Americans were traumatized, not by their new president, but by what they had just experienced — the near-collapse of the banking system, the frightening slide of the stock market, and the panicked expectation of calamities to come. More than any time in memory, what Americans feared was a looming apocalypse, both financial and economic. In response, they looked to the president for dramatic action.
It was in this environment that Congress passed the biggest spending bill of its kind in history, and began accumulating additional debt in the trillions.
The president and Congress had guessed, rightly it seemed, that a shell-shocked nation would be more accepting of big government spending and expansion than at any time since FDR’s programs during the Great Depression.
But then, sometime in the spring of ’09, Americans awoke to find life as they’ve known it continuing.
In most cases, the bank around the corner was still in business. So were most gas stations and supermarkets, restaurants and repair shops.
In other words, doomsday never arrived. It was just business as usual, as far as the eye could see. Unemployment was very high, but the world still looked the same.
Surrounded by this sea of normalcy, Americans began taking a second look at Washington and its multi-trillion-dollar spending commitments.
That’s when Obama’s political troubles began.
It’s been said that America is a centrist country. And just as Ronald Reagan had pulled it to the right, Barack Obama had hoped to pull it more to the left, as FDR had done. But with Americans’ worst fears having departed, the job quickly became arduous.
We’ve since seen the rise of the tea party movement and a national preoccupation with deficits and debt. Within a few short months, Americans changed from being willing to spend trillions to avert financial Armageddon to being equally willing to move mountains to rein in spending.
This stunningly rapid lurch from left to right has Washington reeling and both sides scrambling to catch up. It is seemingly unprecedented, and it will likely alter the landscape profoundly come November.
And what about President Obama? He must realize that a nation like America cannot, under anything less than calamitous times, be effectively governed from the left without a backlash at the polls. FDR is the great exception that proves the rule. And even under FDR, it took the Great Depression to prepare Americans for what he had in mind.
Despite the economic and financial convulsions of 2008 and early 2009, the familiar patterns and rhythms of American life go on. That is the dominant political fact that hangs over the Obama administration and presidency. Will the president acknowledge it? Will he act on it, by moving toward the center to rescue his presidency?
Paul Liben has worked in New York City and Washington, DC as a speechwriter for the past 15 years. He served as a speechwriter for New York Governor George Pataki and then as director of speechwriting for U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. A published writer, he has written op-eds for more than 100 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer and Houston Chronicle.