Michael Barone deconstructs the Obama administration
How could such smart people do so many stupid things? That question, or variations on it, is being asked in Washington and around the country about the Obama administration.
The same people who directed the campaign that defeated Hillary Clinton and routed John McCain, a campaign that raised far more money and attracted far more volunteers than any before it, have within a year come up with a legislative program that is crashing in ruins and that, to judge from recent polls, has left the Democratic party weaker than I have seen it in almost 50 years of closely following politics.
The 2008 campaign was an impressive achievement. So, in a negative way, is the 2009 legislative program that has left the Democrats in such woeful shape in 2010.
I can answer these two initial questions. First, while we'll admit that Barry and his team were smart, it was all intellectual and not real world. In other words, they had the book smarts, but they lacked the street smarts. Couple it with charisma and a weariness of Republican control for the bulk of eight years, and you had a prescription for Barry's success and the Democrats continued rout of the GOP in Congress. The answer is rather simple and elementary, but it's the correct answer to those two questions.
Some in Washington say that the problem is that Barack Obama has chosen to rely on his campaign staff rather than the wise old heads in Washington. But Obama and his team have had the benefit of advice from those wise old heads and from the smartest political strategist the Democratic party has produced in the past half-century, Bill Clinton.
A truly wise Washington analyst, National Journal's Jonathan Rauch, says the problem is one-party government. Presidents lead better, he argues, when they are constrained by the need to get bipartisan support.
There's something to that. Obama's three predecessors all had bipartisan initiatives: the 1990 tax package for George Bush 41, North American Free Trade Agreement approval for Clinton, the 2001 education bill and the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit for George Bush 43. Obama has had no bipartisan initiatives of his own.
Barry, despite his campaign rhetoric, never had the goal of bipartisanship. He needed the partisan stranglehold on Congress to enact the change he believed the nation needed. Since his inauguration, since Congress began this significant lurch to the Left, the nation has suffered for its perceived idea that Barry would be a much different president. Here's a hint to those out there that get suckered by this puerile idea: Politicians lie. And Barry has done a bang-up job of doing exactly that. Recall, if you will, the initial health care debate. He kept telling people that "If you like your health insurance and you like your doctor, you can keep them." But Congress had other ideas that were contrary to that, and no one can say he didn't know that Congress was constructing legislation that would make him out to be a liar that he would gladly sign without reservation.
The fact that Democrats, from last July until last week, had a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate to go along with Nancy Pelosi's strong majority in the House seems to have tempted Team Obama to go the all-Democratic route on health care, cap and trade and fiscal policy. But even strong temptations should sometimes be resisted.
I think the problem is more basic and helps to explain why the people who put together a successful campaign have not, so far at least, provided successful governance.
Obama campaigned as someone who would rise above partisan divisions. He first attracted national attention in 2004, when our politics was a kind of culture war, by stressing what red-state America and blue-state America had in common. He campaigned in a similar vein in 2007 and 2008.
But when he came to office in 2009, the cultural issues that had occupied so much of the political landscape for a dozen years had been eclipsed in importance by the financial crisis and the deepening recession.
So Obama was faced with a fundamental choice. He could either chart a bipartisan course in response to the economic emergency, or he could try to expand government to Western European magnitude as Democratic congressional leaders, elected for years in monopartisan districts, had long wished to do.
The former community organizer and Chicago pol chose the latter course.
He chose the route of partisanship, and it's burning him and his party badly. Democrats are lashing out at each other over proposed legislation, such as the health insurance reform, and cap and trade. Even Senate Democrats are basically saying cap and trade is dead, for now. The health insurance reform looks like it's on life support (pun intended) because the GOP simply refuses to budge on the issue. Minority Leader John Boehner is willing to work with the president on a compromise bill, but he stresses the entire bill, as it stands now, should be scrapped and that Congress should start over. He's right, of course, but the Democrats whine that his request is unreasonable. The reason for the hubris of the Democrats? They wield the power, and feel they shouldn't have to negotiate. The problem is that they don't want to pass legislation that is controversial because they don't want to own it outright. They want to use the GOP as a scapegoat.
To the surprise of many who watched previous presidents present specific administration policies to Congress, he allowed Democratic leaders to design the stimulus package they rushed into law in six weeks.
One-third of the money went to state and local governments -- an obvious payoff to the public employee unions that contributed so much money to Democrats -- and much of it went to permanently increase the baseline spending of discretionary programs, a longtime goal of Democratic congressional leaders.
Federal spending was raised from about 20 percent to about 24 percent of gross domestic product, putting the United States on a trajectory to double the national debt as a percentage of GDP in less than 10 years.
Team Obama overestimated the stimulative effect of the stimulus package and underestimated the strength of the spontaneous Tea Party movement that flared up in protest of this expansion of government.
They underestimated as well the opposition to expanding government control over health care and, through the cap-and-trade bill, to the energy sector. And the disgust over conspicuous vote-buying on health care -- the Louisiana Purchase, the Cornhusker Kickback, the Labor Loophole.
Team Obama failed to realize they were no longer running in Chicago or in the Democratic primaries or facing an electorate fed up with Republicans. And, more important, they failed to realize that vastly expanding government goes deeply against the American grain -- and against the basic appeal of their successful campaign.
That is the lesson of these mistakes. The Democrats, lead by Barry, overreached in ways this nation hasn't seen since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. It is partisan arrogance that has brought them to this point in history. They thought the political winds had shifted, based on Barry's successful election, and that the nation was ready to embrace the socialist policies and liberalism of Europe.
That's why Barry made it a point in his campaign to focus on health insurance reform, and everyone knew what he meant. Michael Barone noted a video by Verum Serum where Barry is openly advocating the same sort of health insurance system similar to Canada and the UK. In fact, if we look at much of the legislative agenda the Democrats are pushing, with Barry cheerleading them from the White House, is akin to Western European socialism. (It's a soft sort of socialism, and was planned to be incremental, hence the health insurance reform that wouldn't begin to go into effect until 2013 despite the fact the tax increases to pay for it would begin immediately.)
Instead of playing the centrist, as President Clinton urged, Barry and Company went hard left right off the bat. That was foolish. But the continued mistakes made by this administration -- from the threats of prosecuting CIA interrogators to the mishandling of terrorist incidents since his inauguration; dawdling over the troop request from General Stanley McChrystal; apologizing to the world for America's greatness, and stalwart support of freedom and democracy -- have all, literally, been stupid. They're rookie mistakes made by a man who thought he was ready to lead.
He's not leading. He's attacking, demonizing, and demeaning the American public. No wonder why his approval numbers are sitting around 48% via Real Clear Politics average. People aren't happy with him. He hasn't delivered on virtually any promise he made on the campaign trail. The unemployment rate has stabilized, for now, at around 9.7% (real unemployment numbers are closer to 18%). the stock market tried to turn around, but has seemingly stagnated at around 10,000, give or take a couple hundred points depending on what happens in the world daily; that's still down 4000 points from 2008 when this recession began.
The nation is still suffering under the weight of this recession. Hell, the world is, too. (That's how it goes, folks. When we have economic hard times, so does the world.) But the president isn't paying attention to any of it with a serious eye. He pays the nation lip service in sound bites that the sycophantic press dutifully repeats. But that won't solve our problems. To quote the president, he, Democrats, and his administration have "acted stupidly"when it came to leading America; a job they were elected to do. The curtain has been pulled back, and the public knows that the emperor has no clothes.