For the sixth time in 11 days, President Barack Obama was back before the cameras Thursday, talking about airline safety and anti-terrorism. He then left quickly for a second White House room to meet with Senate chairmen and press to have a health care bill on his desk no later than next month.
Two very different issues with one common thread: Obama engaging, shedding his famous detachment after watching the intensity of his support drop dramatically since last spring.
To get health care, he must be both a broker and buffer, absorbing the heat for difficult decisions at a time when Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have largely exhausted their own political capital—and much of their caucuses’. In the case of terrorism, Obama recognizes too that he must be more out front, responding to the public’s gut fears and anger after the attempted attack on a U.S. airliner Christmas Day. “Ultimately, the buck stops with me,” he said.
As a candidate, Obama’s cool was never fatal because so many voters simply imposed their own dreams on him. But wrapped in the bubble of the Oval Office and surrounded by Ivy-educated budget and economic advisers, this detachment is magnified and hurts him with lawmakers and voters alike, looking for more of a connection amid tough times.
For all he shares with FDR, “Mr. Fireside Chat” Obama is not.
On a snowy Sunday before the Senate went home for Christmas, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) delivered a blistering floor speech accusing Republicans of being “desperate to break this president.” But even Whitehouse, a strong Obama admirer, admits frustration with the president’s detachment.
“Obviously, we’re in the middle of a partisan battle and would love to have the White House swing in behind us,” he told POLITICO. “I frankly wish he had been more outspoken on the economy and a little less hemmed in” by advisors whose judgment Whitestone likens to his old law school lessons on the commercial code: “No matter how complicated the question: bank wins.”
Independent observers on the right see Obama’s detachment as a sign of drift. Those to the left see a smart man prone to step back always and take a longer look.
“He seems reluctant to take the reins and is not the strong leader that voters thought they were voting for,” says Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster.
“Obama is not a populist. He can't bring himself to fake it,” answers Thomas Mann, a Brookings political scientist. “He is a very well informed and open-minded policy wonk who will continue to disappoint those who have it all figured out. Given the complexity of the problems we face, I think that is a good thing.”
Indeed, something’s working for Obama, and at one level, his first year has been successful.
He got his recovery plan in place early enough that he can take credit for some of the progress now on the economy. His gamble on health care delayed energy initiatives and Wall Street reforms. But if he can successfully merge the House and Senate bills, it would be a history-making triumph.
But so much of Obama’s early agenda was aspirational: the new stimulus investments, health care, climate change. What lies ahead is grimmer stuff: exploding debt, a costly war overseas. And he pays a price for not doing more in his first year to restore the social compact needed to pull the country together.
His “post-partisan” pledge has been met with a fierce -- some say paranoid -- rejection by the right. But this White House never seemed to appreciate the inherent conflict between the magnitude of its agenda and Obama’s promise to be bipartisan.
Even FDR waited until after his first two years to enact Social Security. Yet this administration rejected taking a more incremental approach toward health reform or establishing budget benchmarks to reassure those worried about its financing.
On the left, Obama’s supporters hunger for more populism—or a taste of the very patrician Roosevelt in his first years in the White House.
“Tories, Chiselers, Dead Cats, Witch Doctors, Bank Wreckers, Traitors” was one Republican tract against the New Deal in 1933. But born rich, the Hudson River Squire could be famously unfazed and contemptuous of attacks from the wealthy and business. “Now that these people are coming out of their storm cellars, they forget there was a storm,” Roosevelt said.
By comparison, Obama belongs to a new American elite defined by the post-civil rights, post-Vietnam War meritocracy, and Democrats fear his intellect and pragmatism make him an almost perfect foil for the more religious-oriented right. More than most presidents, he has reached out dutifully to Congress with scores of meetings, but lawmakers complain of his back-of-the-hand treatment, which can relegate friends to the distant third person.
House Democrats have most felt this sting, and even the typically loyal Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) fired a gibe back at the president this week, reminding him of past promises as final talks on health care began at the White House. Old friends in the Senate got a sample of the Obama distance before Christmas, when the president announced he was delaying his Hawaii vacation until senators finished “their” work on health care.
Some of this awkwardness may simply be the challenge of adjusting to an overwhelming job in an overwhelming year. Obama’s admirers insist he is still a young man with a proven capacity to grow.
What’s most clear is he’s complicated. Two Obama speeches—just days apart last month and both pertaining to war—tell a lot of what makes him so.
The first came Dec. 1st at West Point, where the president announced his decision to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The words were coolly logical, calibrated to reflect the different forces that Obama had to balance in reaching his decision. The president was closely involved in the writing and was said to be very self conscious of the cadets before him. Nonetheless, the presentation appeared flat and distant.
Ten days later, he was back on his game, this time explaining himself to the Nobel audience in Europe. More than West Point, the speech seemed Obama’s alone, finalized on the plane to Oslo and an opportunity to disarm conservatives opposed to his accepting the Peace Price in the first place.
The ensuing hoopla -- pundits gushed about the philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr and evil in the world -- exaggerated the contrast. But some were left asking: Why did the cadets -- and their parents -- get the flat speech when they will bear the real price for the war? And is this White House so self-absorbed that it was using Oslo to play to the right and indulging again in showcasing Obama’s intellect?
When read carefully, the same two speeches -- from Obama’s perspective -- can be seen as his own set of bookends, framing his internal debate over a war that has become very much his own. West Point was foremost about defining the mission for the cadets before him; Oslo subtly wrapped in an Obama rebuttal to those who found him flat and uninspiring 10 days before.
Daring to go where most presidents don’t, Obama drew a sharp line between those who must fight in wars and commanders, like him, who send them.
“No matter how justified, war promises human tragedy,” Obama said. “The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.”
Finding the right balance is difficult -- not just for Obama but those in Congress who must understand and work with him.
What neither side can ignore is how much Obama seems more alone as the new year begins, with the intensity of his support fading away in public polls.
Last spring, the new president was riding high with a 63 percent job rating and 2-1 advantage between those voters who strongly approved of his performance and those who strongly disapproved. By December, the same Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll put Obama's job rating below 50 percent and found voters evenly split 47 percent to 46 percent on his performance.
Inside the numbers is a bigger reversal: just 25 percent of those polled felt strongly that Obama was doing a good job. That’s down from 41 percent in April and now substantially less than the 34 percent who strongly disapprove of Obama’s performance.
“He’s lost the real intense support he had nine, 10 months ago,” says Newhouse. “And that intensity on the negative has huge implications.”
Nor is that negative intensity likely to fade soon.
Tough mid-term elections loom in November, driving back-to-back retirement announcements this week by old Obama colleagues: Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). As soon as Congress returns, Democrats and Obama will face a major fight over raising the federal debt ceiling. Fast on its heels in February will follow Obama’s 2011 budget –including program reductions. By March, the House expects to be debating new money to pay for his military buildup in Afghanistan.
Mann, the Brookings political scientist, would argue that Obama’s post-partisan pitch, however seductive in polarized times, was never realistic as a governing tool and something of a ploy to hold Democrats together. “Obama was naïve in the campaign in making it such a centerpiece,” Mann says. “He has maintained the overtures to Republicans because it helps him get the conservative Dems needed for 60 (votes) in the Senate.”
Bill Clinton was a far more outwardly personable president, but his experience with a Republican Congress in the 1990s is relevant here.
The much celebrated but narrow window of Clinton-GOP co-operation only came after Republicans blundered by trying to shut down the government in 1995. The GOP realized then that it had to dig itself out from under its extremist image, and Clinton happily deployed his famous “triangulation” strategy, sacrificing liberals on issues like welfare reform to help his own reelection in 1996.
But the Republican conservative base soon grew unhappy with this partnership. And looking back, Clinton veterans would argue that that it took a real political fumble—the shutdown of the government—to make co-operation possible; it was never some natural desire of the political parties to work together.
In some ways, that may be the best read on 2010: a long football game in which both sides are most worried about turnovers that will put them in a hole as too extreme.
Amid high unemployment, Republicans are convinced the growing debt and shaky financing of health care reform will give them the turnover they need to take back the ball. But if the economy continues to improve, Obama’s $787 billion stimulus will look like a better investment. And if the administration ever gets to the stage of implementing health care reform, the White House hopes voters will see that it’s not the Armageddon portrayed by conservatives.
Whitehouse’s Dec. 20 Senate speech is a telling footnote.
The freshman Democrat says he wrote the speech himself but never showed the text to his staff -- for fear he would be talked out of giving it. Certainly, few others have been so direct in describing “the malignant and vindictive passions that have descended on the Senate.”
Quoting a mid-sixties essay by the historian Richard Hofstadter on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Whitehouse argued that the nation was again witnessing an aggrieved minority -- this time conservative -- bent on obstructing and mischaracterizing the agenda of a new president.
“Why all this discord and discourtesy... They have ardent supporters who are nearly hysterical at the very election of President Barack Obama.”
In almost Biblical language, Whitehouse predicted too “a day of judgment about who was telling the truth.” And the Rhode Island Democrat said the underlying Republican fear was less about health reform itself than what the public will realize about the Republican attacks once the Democratic bill is implemented.
“If they can cause this bill to fail, the truth will never stand up as a living reproach to the lies that have been told, and on through history our colleagues could claim they defeated a terrible monstrosity,” Whitehouse said. But if the potential of the reforms are realized, he said, “Americans will then know, beyond any capacity of spin or propaganda to dissuade them, that they were lied to.”
“And they will remember. There will come a day of judgment, and our Republican friends know that. That is why we they are terrified.”
It was tough stuff -- words that Obama’s cool would never permit. But Whitehouse is resigned to the fact that presidents have their own longer view than allies in Congress.
“This administration ran on the promise of a better tone and a more bipartisan approach,” Whitehouse told POLITICO. “I think they have been slow to transition away from that point and toward a more engaged debate with the Republicans ….I think there is some impatience with that.
“The counter to that from their point of view is he is going to be president for four years or eight years, and if they want to keep a steady tone and bearing-- notwithstanding the immediate battles -- that may prove to be a good long-distance strategy.”