02 September 2009

Slip sliding away

A few weeks ago, I termed Barack Obama a "50 percent president."

The obvious implication of those remarks was that the Changemaker has already alienated conservatives with his outlandish spending and backward-looking attacks on the Bush administration, and has turned off moderates with his insistence on governing largely from the hard left.

I genuinely believe what was unthinkable even four months ago: If he continues down this path, Barack Obama will be a one-term president. And I believe we will be able to point to the ongoing health care debacle as the turning point.

The Democrats could actually learn quite a bit by listening to Chris Matthews. Striking a populist tone, Matthews has argued repeatedly for increased portability of coverage as well as limits on insurance companies' ability to deny coverage to individuals based on pre-existing conditions. These are two big issues that virtually no one can deny are problems with the current system. Whether they should be addressed government regulation is another matter, but to argue that the current system affords "freedom" to choose is a misnomer. Matthews hasn't been a proponent of a single-payer system or even a public option, but rather, has argued that the system we have is only moderately flawed and could be cured by such incremental reforms.

I personally think Matthews is partially right, and it would behoove Obama to pay attention to what moderate Democrats like Matthews, Max Baucus and Kent Conrad are saying. This type of argument, I believe, would be supported by a majority of Americans.

It's no secret that the president's job approval numbers have been in the midst of a steady decline. Real Clear Politics has a handy page, found here, that tracks data published by most of the major polling organizations. As noted by us previously, the president took office eight and a half months ago with approval ratings in the 70s and unfavorable ratings in the high teens.

One poll not cited by RCP (which notably would have dragged the president's aggregate approval rating even lower) was Zogby's from August 31, found here. The veteran Zogby's cadre puts Obama's approval rating at 42. Forty-two! Additionally, Zogby isn't the only high-profile pollster to find Obama's approval ratings in the 40s -- Scott Rasmussen puts the number at 46.

The key to Obama's 2008 electoral victory was not the liberal outpouring of support on his behalf, but rather the fact that, according to Gallup, he won 60 percent of the self-described "centrist" vote.

By contrast, Zogby's poll, cited above, found that just 37 percent of independents approve of the job he is doing.

That is an astounding swing, and it's clear that the president's 20-point drop in his approval rating since inauguration day is due in large part to the views of these independents.

How many times have we argued on this site that winning the center is vital? During the general election, Obama out-centered perhaps the preeminent centrist politician in the country. He argued for middle-class tax cuts, reducing the deficit, adding troops to the fight in Afghanistan, promised transparency in government and only offered vagueries about his health care plans. Barack Obama ran as a moderate, plain and simple. Almost immediately upon his inauguration, he largely abandoned the vital center.

The president still has time to swat House liberals out of the way and formulate a real, adult solution to the country's health care issues that can attract a majority of Americans. But by offering virtually no specifics as to what his plan might include, letting House Democrats write the bill, and attacking anyone -- left, center or right -- who dared to criticize the package, the president has dug himself an enormous hole.

Many liberals, when confronted with the issue of the president's declining poll numbers, try to compare his slide to that of George W. Bush or, more favorably, Bill Clinton.

However, Clinton and Obama are as different as night and day.

Bill Clinton saved his presidency after the 1994 congressional elections swept the GOP into power. By regrouping and governing from the center, Clinton redeemed himself, passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, putting Al Gore in charge of slashing wasteful bureaucratic spending, passing a massive overhaul of the welfare system, and balancing the budget in 1997.

Obama's problem is that he is no Clinton. Clinton came to office in 1993 with a record of working across the aisle in a reliably conservative state. As noted by both Dick Morris and David Gergen, Clinton came to office intent on governing from the center, and became rattled when the Democratic leadership in the Senate gave him stern warnings about becoming friendly with congressional Republicans. Clinton was, in many ways, a different kind of Democrat. And Barack Obama is nothing if not a conventional liberal in every sense of the word.

If the president wants to actually save his presidency before it has barely gotten off the ground, he must demonstrate an ability to work across the aisle and, yes, include conservatives and moderates in the decision-making process.

Unfortunately for liberals, this is something their man has done precious little of during his remarkably unremarkable career.

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