What a Difference a Year Makes

Andrew E. Busch

January 1, 2010

On January 20, 2009, the prevailing understanding in the political world was the Barack Obama was inaugurating not only a presidency but a new era of Democratic, and perhaps even liberal, dominance. Some objected that it was too early to know, that the electorate had rather predictably opted for change away from a party whose president languished in the 30-percent range of public approval but had not fundamentally altered its dispositions. But no one imagined that exactly one year later millions of Americans would be joyfully celebrating not the first anniversary of Obama’s power but the effective end of one-party rule in Washington—brought about by a Republican victory in a U.S. Senate special election in Massachusetts, of all places.

In truth, not one but two Obamas took the oath of office in January 2009. One had been propelled to public attention calling on the nation to set aside the Red-Blue divide. This Obama won the Democratic nomination by appealing to moderates who were desperate to avoid another polarizing Clinton presidency and won the general election by promising fiscal discipline, tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans, and a thoughtful approach that would look at facts and do what logic called for.

The other Obama had the most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate, was friends with Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, and ridiculed Americans who insisted on clinging to their guns and their religion. This Obama won the Democratic nomination by fixing himself as the candidate of the anti-war Bush-haters and won the general election by promising a new health care entitlement, cap-and-trade, and policies designed to sate the demands of big labor.

The question on January 20, 2009 was which Obama would show up to work the next day. The answer that can be given on January 20, 2010 is that the second Obama had sway, far too often for the taste of an electorate that had rather predictably opted for change away from a party whose president languished in the 30-percent range of public approval but had not fundamentally altered its dispositions.

There were some notable exceptions in the realm of national security, where Obama disappointed the left by retaining Bush-era policies while changing the way they were described. Here the President reversed course either because he calculated that a national security failure would endanger his entire agenda or because he grew in office and thoughtfully conformed to reality as he discovered it. Obama also surprised many, including stalwarts of the left, by keeping his promise to put additional resources into Afghanistan, though with such delays, conditions, and hedging that he undercut his own message.

In domestic policy, however, there were few if any exceptions to the picture of Obama the left ideologue. The failure of the stimulus could be predicted, given the failure of such policies in Japan in the 1990s and the U.S. itself in the 1930s. The exposure of Climategate apparently produced no second thoughts about imposing massive new costs on a struggling economy through carbon regulation. An indirect government takeover of health care and creation of a massive new entitlement program have been pushed relentlessly, despite utter lack of evidence that the program will achieve the President’s stated aims and despite six months of evidence that the public simply does not want what Obama is selling. To be sure, Obama has shown tactical flexibility—his willingness to forego the public option is a good example—but this should not be confused with a broader sort of pragmatism that cares about actual results and that allows one’s general thrust to be altered in the face of evidence.

A key moment came in September. It was already clear that the public was deeply concerned about the direction the health care effort was heading, and some Republicans were still amenable to compromise. By allowing Congress to take the lead, the President was not yet fully implicated in the product. When Obama spoke before a joint session of Congress, he had an opportunity to acknowledge the concerns and pivot to a more incrementalist position drawing seriously from both parties. Instead, he inaugurated the “cram down” phase of the operation. Scott Brown’s election will mean either the end of that strategy or its acceleration to the point of self-immolation by the Democratic Party.

Altogether, Obama took the public hunger for action as a hunger for any action, no matter how ill-conceived and (in the case of health care and cap-and-trade) no matter how disconnected from the actual crisis at hand. In their first year, Reagan and Clinton both accomplished more of consequence than Obama, despite having fewer political resources, because there was a direct connection between what they sought and the reasons they were elected. Obama has deepened the partisan divide rather than ameliorating it; just as importantly, the divide sees fewer (and more dispirited) Democrats and more (and more enthused) Republicans than the nation has seen in several years.

None of this means that Obama is doomed. Democrats still hold large majorities in both houses of Congress. For the rest of this year, Obama’s spending and taxing priorities, his liberal reshaping of the federal judiciary, and his attempt to turn the terrorist war on America into a matter of criminal justice can continue apace. Even heavy midterm election losses do not always mean a president is stymied. Ronald Reagan showed that skillful presidents in possession of sound policies can recover from early economic woes and midterm disappointments; Bill Clinton showed that skillful presidents can recover from self-inflicted wounds and loss of Congress.

On the other hand, while by many measures the economy has stabilized, Obama’s economic policies are not well-designed to produce long-term growth; not every president is as skillful as Reagan or Clinton (certainly Obama has not yet shown himself to be); and Clinton’s rebound owed more than a little to the self-inflicted wounds of his adversaries, which Obama cannot count on. Not least, Clinton’s comeback could proceed with the backdrop of a world more-or-less at peace. Obama faces a world filled with peril, a fact which he has yet to fully confront, though he made a start rhetorically in Oslo. One suspects that the Christmas underpants bomber is the beginning rather than the end of that story.

In the end, the question on January 20, 2010 is a familiar one. Which President Obama will show up for work? The hubristic left-wing academic scold who has governed for most of the last year, who has brought the country to the edge of political rebellion and his party to the edge of electoral disaster? Or the soothing, thoughtful (or merely verbose) problem-solver? Americans are forgiving and ever-hopeful, though at some point they simply stop listening. Once that happens, transformation becomes much more difficult.

Just as in January 2009 no one could say with certainty that Obama’s first year would fall so short of the positive expectations he engendered, no one can now say with certainty that the next year or two or three will not be better. One can say that if they are not better, he will not be reelected.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, and Ann and Herbert W. Vaughan Visiting Fellow at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.