President Obama’s Challenge

January 27, 2010

Political pundits have defined tonight’s State of the Union address as a critical moment in U.S. politics.  Will voter support for what looks like a one-term presidency continue to get trimmed, or will the government be born again after an inspiring redefinition of its mission?  One learns to never say either never or always in predicting economics and politics, but it seems pretty clear that President Obama is up against forces that will require more that words to beat.

Two expressions defined the Obama candidacy, “yes we can” and the “audacity of hope.”  The past year saw many objectives go unfulfilled.  Reforms in banking supervision, healthcare, fossil fuel conservation come to mind.  The prison at Guantanamo is open, and Osama Bin Laden wasn’t caught.  National politics became more partisan than ever, and programs to create hundreds of thousands of jobs were juxtaposed against a 4.16 million additional loss of workers and a 2.6 percentage point jump in the unemployment rate.  Obama tried but failed to deliver the 2016 Olympics to Chicago.  Yes-we-can took on a whole new meaning, and the worst part politically is that it increasingly connotes just the reverse.

So did the president’s rallying call for hope.  The most positive spin on 2009 is the opportunity cost that was avoided.  The world and U.S. economies didn’t slide into depression, a script that seemed all too plausible twelve months ago.  Recovery in many instances, including the United States, arrived more quickly and robustly than imagined.  But the underlying imbalances and other factors that created the Great Recession remain unfixed, and the price for averting the big one in 2009 is a much more worrisome long-term fiscal prognosis.  Obama’s political opponents have effectively exploited those fears.  Americans sense a parallel between the heroic measures taken in 2008/9 to avert economic catastrophe and the enormous monies spent for American healthcare in the final few months of life.  Without removing minefields from the business cycle, disaster has been postponed, but not eliminated.  Was the fiscal cost of that treatment of symptoms any more rewarding than what it costs society to postpone the inevitability of our deaths by a few months?

Obama’s predecessor was very unpopular at the end of his second term but enjoyed enough support after the first four years to get reelected.  With a smaller mandate than Obama in terms of popular vote, electoral votes, and the majority he had in Congress, Bush managed to achieve the few promises he made as a candidate: substantial tax cuts, a no-child-left-behind education bill, and a tough law-and-order message that was channeled into the war on terrorism and homeland security.

Obama also shares a problem common to many other recent Democratic presidential nominees, and that is his relative newness on the national scene.  He had been a state senator less than five years before being elected president.  Like Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1992, he came from relative obscurity to the highest office in a short time span.  McGovern, who lost in 1972, was hardly know before 1968.  Dukakis in 1988 had likewise not been long on the national stage, and he moreover was from the only state that had voted for the losing side in 1972.  Kerry in 2004 was also from Massachusetts.  Republican presidential nominees, by comparison, are better vetted.  Among non-incumbents, Nixon in 1968 had been on the national scene for two decades.  Reagan by 1980 had been governor of the country’s most populous state, represented a conservative movement, and had seriously challenged an incumbent president from his own party four years earlier.  Bush Senior had assembled an incredible resume by 1988, including an unsuccessful bid for his party’s nomination eight years earlier.  Dole in 1996 had run for vice president in 1976 and been senate minority leader for many years.  Bush43 had been governor of one of the largest states and came from one of the true royal families of American politics with a grandfather who’d been senator of Connecticut, a father who was once president, and a brother who was then governor of Florida.  John McCain in 2008 was a war hero, a long-time U.S. senator, and a previous candidate for his party’s nomination.  When adversity strikes, it helps if the political decision-maker is someone in whom the national public has been long acquainted.

A related issue is the youthful and internet-saavy political base that helped elect Barack Obama.  The attention span of young people in politics is notoriously short.  It’s the age bracket with the lowest percentage of people that actually vote.  Young people have largely moved on, pursuing their personal lives and careers.  Obama’s message may have been “yes we can,” but many young people were engaged only until the inauguration and then signed off.

Obama is up against formidable, intangible, negative factors that transcend well behind working more efficiently with other branches of government and getting the American people enthusiastic about a policy agenda.  He’s a truly gifted speaker, so the speech of his life tonight probably will not produce an epiphany in the national consciousness.  They’ve come to expect eloquence and insight, but those qualities no longer suffice.  It’s going to take much more in terms of getting goals met and catching lucky breaks on the economy and in foreign policy to change general impressions about his presidency’s direction.

Copyright Larry Greenberg 2010.  All rights reserved.  No secondary distribution without express permission.

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