President Obama And Pervasive Feelings

Today is the New Hampshire primary, Romney is calling for "leadership," and he seems to be getting away with it. He's not really calling attention to his own qualities, since he's rather slavishly followed his market the way a person who thinks he's a corporation would. No, Romney is tapping into a pervasive feeling--or what reporters, it seems pervasively, call a pervasive feeling--that Obama's leadership has failed. "Leadership" is for the new Romney what "law and order" was for the new Nixon. He's got (as we sang while Nixon shrugged) a ticket to ride.

The question is, why this feeling about Obama? Really. Why? How has it become so hip to doubt Obama's leadership even as--here comes another cliche--"people like him"?

I won't now recount all the accomplishments of the Obama presidency, certainly by comparison with any president in living memory. Others have done a good job compiling these (check out this list to 2010, before Libya, etc., and take a few minutes to contemplate it). I will myself be publishing a review essay in The Nation shortly, reconsidering his greatest accomplishment, healthcare reform, which took a hundred years to enact.

Still, Obama's re-election seems anything but certain--Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc. all seem within Republican reach--and he's polling around 45% (he won with only 52.8%). If he loses, the "leadership issue" will likely be the critical one, which is a little like saying he will lose because he's widely thought to be a loser.

THERE IS ANOTHER way of looking at this, of course. Almost from the moment he was elected, Republican leaders in Congress announced that their mission was to obstruct and defeat him--not only on issues where they might have genuine disagreements, but also on things they generally endorse but might improve the economy, like roads and bridges. The Republican fear, quite openly expressed, was that Obama might get credit if things improved.

It was as if a surly, jealous crew (one that could not be fired, Mr. Romney) had announced at the outset of a voyage that they intended to sabotage the ship's engines to make the captain look bad. And yet the passengers, once at sea, and with the ship foundering, do turn on the captain. What did congressional Republicans know about American politics that allowed them to assume they could indeed get away with this?

THE ANSWER, OR so we are told again and again, has to do with unemployment. "No president with an unemployment rate above etc., has ever etc." So the first charge leveled against Obama is that he spent too much time on healthcare when he should have focused on the economy. Sure, his policies may have allowed us to avoid a depression, and saved the auto industry, but healthcare? The vast majority of people did not really benefit from the healthcare reform, so the argument goes, since only 30-40 million are uninsured. But all are affected by the squishy employment numbers (less squishy now than last month, but never mind).

A moment's thought reveals the nonsense here. Of course everybody benefits from the health reforms (preexisting conditions, etc.) but especially those who risk unemployment. Besides, if people who are insured don't see why the health reforms are for them, why should the people who are employed care about the unemployment numbers? If their attitude to the first problem is "I-worry-about-myself-I'm-OK-fuck'em," why is this not their attitude toward the second?

Which leads to the second charge, that Obama has not put himself on the side of the people who are falling out of the middle class--you know, the charge leveled by Velma Hart, who told the president to his face, oh so photogenically, that she was "exhausted" defending his administration. Never mind that the squeeze on people like Hart has more to do with a generation-long shift, where digits in companies are being replaced by digital technology. Never mind that Obama has said dozens of times that America must invest in education and infrastructure to prepare. No, Obama, in courting "bipartisanship," or appointing Larry Summers, etc., put himself on the side of the bad guys.

What should he have done? Now things become vague. Nationalize the most reckless banks, or indict Wall Street CEOs, anticipate oil spills. Anyway--and now comes the third charge--he "squandered an FDR moment" precisely by trying to cut deals, even if this meant currying favor from powerful interests. As if TARP (which Obama reluctantly endorsed while campaigning) did not work. As if the private sector is not 8-9 times greater than the public, and to get out of the crisis Obama knew he would have to calm people who had benefited from absurd inequalities over two generations, whatever he privately felt about them. Oh, and as if FDR did not reconcile himself shamelessly to the Jim Crow South to make deals with southern Democrats.

THE FOURTH CHARGE now comes in. Okay, maybe he did steer the country away from a depression, etc., but unemployment remained high because the stimulus was too small. Never mind that administration figures like Larry Summers, of all people, were saying again and again that it was better to err on the side of too much than too little. Never mind that Obama got something twice as big as what Nancy Pelosi originally thought feasible. Never mind that Obama did come back to Congress for more in the fall of 2009 and was told he could forget it.  Never mind that he never had a day in office--not one!--in which he had the votes in the Senate to simply do what he wanted. (Ditto healthcare and the late, lamented "public option.")

And this leads to the fifth (and for now final) charge. Obama had a bully pulpit; if only he had used it more aggressively, he might have lost Congressional votes, sure, but he'd also have "changed the narrative." There is a measure of truth here, though Fox-News gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "bully pulpit." Then again, he was our first black president and, as commander-in-chief, inherited a quarter of a million troops in harm's way. What would have been said about him had he polarized the country, instead of trying to project unity and reasonableness in 2009 and 2010? He could not overturn American capitalism just because a million people held candles for him the night he was elected. He called the Cambridge police stupid for arresting Skip Gates (which they clearly were) and who cared about the reason he called the press conference?

Nevertheless, the charge just grew that Obama was timid, or did not know how to negotiate, as if the result of negotiations do not reflect actual power relations, and he was something less than half of the government. The culmination of his fecklessness, we are told, was the debt-ceiling crisis, in which Obama "lost," or should have invoked the Fourteenth Amendment, as if that fight did not actually set him up to fight the current fight and "change the narrative"; as if our first constitutional law professor in the White House does not know the limits of presidential constitutional authority. Let's call it the "Jon Stewart disappointment" (reinforced by his erstwhile TV buddy, Anthony Wiener), which finally defined the hipness of disappointment. In this view, the candidate who implied he was going to change Washington just started working the system. He wasted time on bipartisanship.

Obama, to continue, refused to see the meanness, fanaticism, and venality of congressional Republicans. (Stewart then called a half million people to the mall in Washington and gave them a pale version of the very speech valorizing bipartisanship that Obama gave to the Democratic Convention in 2004.) The flip side of this is the "Tom Friedman disappointment," which implies the need for the very bipartisan "grand bargain" Obama has been trying to nudge Republicans to accept, and whose inference for action, you'd think, is to rally around Obama, but for Friedman seems to mean a third party candidate like Michael Bloomberg (who presumably would get along better Jim DeMint.)

ONE THING THAT all of these charges have in common is that they have been picked up by the mainstream press, so that the question of leadership per se is now always there to embarrass Obama. Watch Steve Kroft's creepy interview. ("Isn't it your job as president to find solutions to these problems, to get results?") The other thing is that they all originated with the progressive left. What Obama underestimated was not the venality of Republicans, but the capacity of prominent Democratic supporters, people who pride themselves for being progressives, and who seem to forget what it was like to live under Nixon, Reagan and two Bushes, to demean him.

And progressive democrats also underestimated their own power to influence things. Sure, they constitute a rather small percentage of the total vote. But unlike the leaders of the Tea Party, the leaders of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are disproportionately concentrated in elite universities, media, civic organizations, and new economy businesses. When Paul Krugman's face is on the cover of Newsweek not two months after Obama took office next to the caption: "Obama Is Wrong," it gets the attention of the press in a way that a guy in a funny hat at a county fair does not.

What Obama was presumably wrong about was the plan for bailing out the banks. Krugman wanted something like nationalization, and tarred Obama with Wall Street connections. You decide who was wrong. About the Huffington Post, MSNBC, etc. during the 2009 summer of the public option, or during the debt-ceiling crisis, the less said the better. Today, 42 % of Americans think Obama favors Wall Street. Who  started that snowball?

The thing recalcitrant Republicans knew all along, you see, is that independents are basically flockers who will vote for a strong leader, who is on their side, which is another way of saying a leader who promises to be "a winner." And Republican "strategists" also knew that the press is lazy and so enamored of the horse-race that most will report on "enthusiasm" rather than on what policy or integrity there is to be enthusiastic about. Rather, the press will satisfy itself with Nate Silver's correlations--wow, 8% unemployment, so the stats say you should lose!--because causes are too hard. They will also look for evidence that you are a loser--and look no further than "disappointment" from the very people you ought to be inspiring.

There is much more to say here, but I won't. The point is simple: there will be an election in the fall, and "independents" will decide it. There is no question whether they lean to Obama's policies, which generally poll much better than his "job performance." But if Obama is going to be reelected, he must not only lead (which he has), but also appear to be a leader. Here, the relentless condescension of the Democratic progressives has been a terrible burden on him.

I had my own hopes for an Obama presidency regarding the Middle East, which have not been realized--not yet, in any case. But on the whole, he's been the sanest, most intelligent president of my lifetime, and we are at a pivotal moment. There are nine months to close the "enthusiasm gap." And that is our problem, not his.