posted on: Thursday October 21, 2010
Ewen Finser ’12/Commentary Staff
Things are not going so well for the Top Dog in the White House these days. The economy remains stagnant with a registered 9.6 percent unemployment rate, while the number of those who have given up looking for work altogether continues to rise. Health care reform continues to leave a sour aftertaste with voters, increasingly weighing down the Democratic ship of state. Meanwhile, the recent congressional session ends on a politically feeble note, with Obama unable to marshal enough support among his own party, or among Republicans, to come to a decision regarding the Bush era tax cuts, which are set to expire. If you haven’t already noticed, two years can alter the fortunes of a political movement considerably.
With this as the backdrop, the energetic hopeful campaign for change has languished into a tentative and melancholy campaign to keep the presidency afloat. With the departure of Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel, the recasting of the Obama presidency enters its soul-searching phase. Over the course of this past week, Americans have seen a series of “teachable moments” from our newly introspective head of state.
In what appeared to be an uncharacteristic move for what once was an optimistic presidency, Obama admitted a number of errors in judgment over the past two years. In a moment of political candidness, Obama lamented that he had let himself be cast as “the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.” Unfortunately, our president was surprised when the opposition party, overwhelmed by Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, acted as…the opposition. In the history of one-party dominance, this fact should have come as no surprise to the former “Professor Obama” who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago.
Similarly, President Obama has been forced to come to terms publically with a health care reform bill that has become the defining legacy of this young presidency thus far. In a recent forum with young voters on the B.E.T. channel, President Obama was asked whether he regretted not including Republican solutions in his landmark health care bill. Obama responded that he did in fact regret not garnering Republican support for the bill. What this reveals about our president is not so much that he regretted crafting an overtly partisan bill, but that he regretted using the cover of bi-partisanship to share responsibility for an unpopular bill.
As a recent New York Times Magazine article noted, “The president who muscled through Congress perhaps the most ambitious domestic agenda in a generation finds himself vilified by the right, castigated by the left and abandoned by the middle.” There is hope for Obama, however. As much as he may not want to look back to former President Clinton for inspiration, there is a path forward to regain his footing with the public. Obama’s approval rating currently hovers near where Clinton’s was prior to the 1994 election. Similarly, both presidents suffered in their first two years from an unpopular health care reform debate. In the fall of 1994, President Clinton struggled with being labeled as a typical tax and spend liberal of 1970s ilk. With midterm election losses looming as an increasingly foreseeable reality, President Obama will be able to use divided government to mitigate blame for failed proposals, and to work towards popular, more centrist legislative goals. Time will tell if President Obama puts this teachable moment to good use.