10 August 2009

The 50 percent president

I am still preparing a post on health care reform, but with a federal trial coming up next week, I'm not sure when I'll be able to actually piece it all together. Needless to say, Sen. Kent Conrad is making a strong case to be included on the Bipartisan Rules' Mount Rushmore.

At any rate, I've been simultaneously fascinated and disappointed by President Obama's first 200 days in office. On November 5, 2008, I offered these kind words for the president-elect. To me, Bill Clinton's model of moderate Democratic governance and Obama's centrist campaign rhetoric gave me hope (I am so, so sorry for the "hope" reference) that perhaps I could get behind this administration. Given the Changemaker's thin, ultraliberal voting record in the Senate, I was expecting the worst, but crossing my fingers for the best. 

There is no doubt that, in my lifetime, no president of any party has entered the White House with a mandate like that enjoyed by Barack Obama. The election was a clear referendum on the last eight years of Republican rule, and of a lame-duck president whose approval rating hovered around 30 percent during his last two years in office. Without a viable third-party candidate, Obama became the first Democratic president to take more than 50% of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976. His president's party picked up 9 -- nine! -- seats in the U.S. Senate, giving them a commanding 60-40 lead. His party also gained 18 seats in the House, giving them an overwhelming 256-178 edge in that chamber. 

I applaud the president for ignoring the clamoring of the far left to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine, his decision to double-down in Afghanistan, and the dispatching of former President Clinton to obtain the release of the American journalists detained in North Korea. 

But, as usual, my instincts were correct -- President Obama has governed as anything but a postpartisan healer.

On the campaign trail, he promised to ban lobbyists from his administration. He repeatedly denounced the McCain campaign for the presence of former lobbyists on the campaign staff. That, my friends, would have been change we can believe in. Then, he attempted to stack his administration with, you guessed it, lobbyists. Our thoughts on this monumental hypocrisy can be found here.

The president appointed myriad officials who seemed to have trouble paying their taxes -- including Timothy Geithner, who is now his chief economic policymaker.

He was pulled into the Blagojevich saga, and refused to disclose any information whatsoever about his contacts with the former governor's office, despite his campaign promises of transparency.

Upon taking office, the president immediately attempted to slam through an enormous liberal grab bag that was termed an "economic stimulus." Given that about 12 percent of the money has been spent thus far, we're not entirely sure that the word "stimulus" is quite appropriate. Our thoughts can be found here

Instead of working with a bipartisan coalition of moderate senators -- McCain, Lieberman, Nelson, et al. -- to create a package about half the size of the actual bill (which some experts believe could have garnered the support of 3/4 of the Senate), the president completely ignored the concerns of moderates (and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office) that the stimulus would do more harm than good long-term. The president had political capital, and with the bloated stimulus package, was clearly intent on spending it. Despite the administration's posturing, the president clearly had no interest meeting Republicans in the middle.

The same thing is happening with respect to the health care debate. The president has enlisted virtually no Republican input, and has displayed no interest in forging a bipartisan consensus. The only reason the administration will discuss particulars of the bill is because myriad Democratic senators have balked at the proposals of the administration and their cohorts in the House. 

The bottom line is that Barack Obama's presidency is shaping up much like his short career in the Senate. On a few minor issues -- such as rounding up loose nukes in the former Soviet Union -- he can attract considerable Republican support and operate in a bipartisan fashion. But on big-ticket items -- the stimulus, the cap-and-trade bill, card check and health care reform -- he simply won't budge. 

It's difficult to overstate this next point.

From a political perspective, the president was given an opportunity to cement the Democratic Party as the dominant governing force in American politics for perhaps the next 20 years. From the perspective of public policy, he was given an enormous mandate to reshape the American way of life to reflect the realities of the 21st century. The stimulus could have been smaller -- much, much smaller -- and directed most of the money to be spent up front. Instead of taking a swing at a single-payer system, the president could have aimed to educate the indigent about the benefits of Medicaid, and backing the creation of privately owned co-ops, thereby providing insurance to tens of millions of uninsured Americans. 

However, instead of making good on his promises to reshape Washington into a postpartisan utopia, the president, as we've noted many times before, clearly has no interest in governing from the center. 

Any dissent whatsoever -- no matter what the topic -- has been met with shrieks of "extremism" and "obstructionism" from the White House. To me, this is a direct reflection of the president's adamant refusal to work across the aisle on any matter of substance during his short time in the Senate. 

He simply doesn't know how to deal with dissent.

And the latest revelation -- that the White House is actually soliciting the e-mail addresses of individuals who are spreading "misinformation" -- is beyond ridiculous. While I don't doubt that the president is legitimately attempting to combat what he believes to be misinformation, it's a piece of hideous political strategy, to say nothing of the underlying 1st Amendment concerns.

The harsh reality is that Obama is turning into just another 50 percent president. If this much of the luster has worn off after just 200 days, what kind of shape will his leftist governing strategy be in when the midterm elections arrive in November 2010?

For all of the Republican Party's failures over the past decade, this remains a staunchly center-right country. Obama won the presidency largely because he campaigned as a centrist, promising middle-class tax cuts, deficit reductions, governmental reform and extremely vague promises about providing greater access to health care. The backlash over the so-called public option floated by the White House and its liberal allies in Congress is yet another example of how many Democrats simply don't understand that some of the most central tenets of the liberal faith are well outside the American mainstream.

From inauguration day until about mid-April, the president's approval rating sat firmly in the mid-60s. A series of polls released last week tells a different story. The Quinnipac and Rasmussen polls put his approval rating at an even 50 percent. Zogby came up with a number of 53. Gallup and CNN/Opinion Research say it's 55. 

Over the last four months, the harsh realities of governing away from the center have set in. The luster is off; savvy voters are realizing that empty campaign promises of "change" and "hope" don't have much meaning if one governs disparagingly from the extreme left. If the president's approval ratings have dropped to the mid- to low-50s in just 200 days, where will they be by the time his congressional allies are running for re-election? What is even more ominous for the White House is that the president himself actually remains more popular than his policies. These numbers indicate that less than 40 percent of voters think the country is headed in the right direction.

It's been bitterly disappointing to watch Candidate Barack Obama, the centrist, postpartisan healer, morph into President Barack Obama, the conventional leftist politician selling the same old liberal policies that have failed so many times before.

But you can't say we didn't warn you.

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