When President Obama, after months of delay, was finally ready to launch strikes against a dictator in Syria, he suddenly found that the American people were not behind him. A NBC News poll released at the start of the month found 50 percent of respondents opposed taking military action, while only 42 percent approved. And barely a fifth of people (21 percent) believed an attack on Syria was in America’s national interest.
Obama’s domestic agenda faces similar public disapproval. Three years after its passage, Obamacare remains as unpopular as ever, with 49 percent of Americans opposing the law, according to a poll by Gallup published in early September. Just 41 percent of people approve. Other polls consistently show majorities of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track, and disapprove of the President’s job performance.
We are left with a conundrum: why is it that President Obama, reelected less than twelve months ago, and still personally popular with voters, already seems like a lame duck?
The answer partly lies in remarks Obama made himself in 2008, when he was still a senator from Illinois, describing the Presidency of Ronald Reagan: “I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path…”
Obama was right: the Reagan Presidency transformed the nation. The Gipper rolled back the size and scope of government; reforms so popular that they endured for years after he left the White House. He led the American people in a conservative direction, and they stayed there.
That is the mark of a truly great president – their ability to forever change the politics of the nation. Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson, for example, are listed amongst the greats because their reforms (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) fundamentally altered the nature of American government. Even today, these government programs are so hugely popular that no serious contender for the White House has ever attempted to undo them.
President Obama succeeded in passing elements of an ambitious domestic agenda, just like Roosevelt, Johnson, and Reagan. But unlike those predecessors, his policies do not enjoy wide public support. He tried to move America in a left-wing direction, and the country wouldn’t budge.
He failed to move what some academics call the Overton Window (so named after Joseph P. Overton, former Vice President of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy). The “window” contains the spectrum of policies the American people are prepared to accept on a given subject. Ideas that fall within the window are acceptable, ideas outside of the window are considered extreme, and therefore rejected.
It is a president’s job to move the Overton Window toward the policies they wish to implement or defend from attack. Reagan moved the Overton Window to the right; Roosevelt and Johnson moved it to the left. Obama has not been able to move it at all.
A Fox News exit poll from the 2012 election, for example, showed that a majority of Americans preferred Mitt Romney’s economic program and plans to tackle the federal deficit. And 51 percent of those polled agreed with the statement: “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.”
Herein lies the failure of this administration, and why Obama has been rendered a lame duck so soon into his second term. He remains a terrific campaigner and a moving speaker. But in his attempt to move the country in a liberal direction, he has floundered. Obama is trying to sell policies America is refusing to buy.
This does not mean Republicans can expect to win back the White House in 2016 absent an appealing candidate. As the result in 2012 shows, people may prefer conservative policies, but they will not vote for a conservative they find objectionable.
But with a compelling, articulate candidate, Republicans have a strong chance of taking back the White House. And if they do, conservatives can expect to rollback much of the Obama domestic agenda. It has too little popular support to prevent them.
If such a turn comes to pass, historians may look back on the Obama presidency as the most inconsequential since the 1970s – with the noted exception of the trillions added to the federal debt.
If Democrats want to take America in a permanent liberal direction, they will have to find a better leader than President Obama has proven to be. He is personally well liked, but has shown no ability to lead the American people toward embracing the policies progressives dream of.
Both parties should heed the example of Obama’s failure. Any president can use his powers to pass laws. But these powers are fleeting. Only a truly great president can led the people to embrace a new politics. It is a skill that has, thus far, eluded President Obama. It’s likely he never possessed it to begin with.