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Why President Obama (Probably) Can't Win

Updated on October 4, 2011

The Problems With Governing as a Moderate

A couple of days ago, I was watching one of my two favorite sources for TV news: The Daily Show. (My other favorite is The Colbert Report.) I figure that if you are going to turn to TV news for information, then you might as well look to sources that admit to being largely a joke. On this episode, they included a clip from some sort of a gun rights advocate. Apparently, in the delusional universe in which this man resides, President Obama has been carrying out an intricately planned out anti-gun conspiracy.

To the surprise of many supporters of “second amendment rights,” President Obama has not been working hard to take away their guns. If anything, access to guns is even easier than it was when he entered office. Now since President Obama is obviously some sort of an over-regulating anti-Christ, this policy cannot be the result of either the President’s beliefs or his attempts to stave off attacks from social conservatives. Instead, it must somehow be part of his liberal agenda. Clearly Obama’s plan, according to the speaker who appeared on The Daily Show, is to lull gun advocates into a false sense of complacency. Then, after he wins reelection due to his ability to outflank his gun-loving opponents, he will put into effect his anti-gun agenda that has been waiting in the wings.

Now if this is true, it is clear that the President is one of the least effective conspirators in history. Due to his not-so-liberal policies on guns, along with many other issues – the war on terror, immigration, the financial crisis, and social issues in general – he is steadily losing the enthusiasm of his liberal base. Meanwhile, conservatives, regardless of Obama’s actual policy decisions, continue to paint him as a liberal, softy, socialist who must be defeated in 2012. So his approval ratings are low, Democrats experienced significant losses in Congress in 2010, and if the Republicans can settle on a decent candidate to run in 2012, their prospects for victory look bright. So if the president’s plan was to save the liberal agenda for the second term, things are looking pretty bad. And while the president may be many things, I find it hard to believe that he is that stupid.

There are two rational explanations for his behavior. First, he may have concluded from the start that it was bad politics to take a strong liberal stance on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay rights, gun ownership, and immigration. It was going to be hard enough to get much of anything done on the issues that were clearly closest to his heart: financial stimulus, health care, and financial regulation. Since his opponents were likely to label him a socialist regardless of the actual actions taken on these issues, the last thing he needed was to be perceived as a liberal “culture warrior.” The other possibility is that he actually believes in following a moderate approach on many controversial issues. So he talks as little as possible about social issues, did not support a radical overhaul of the financial sector, and has pursued “terrorists” even more aggressively – troop buildups in Afghanistan, increased drone strikes, continued support of The Patriot Acts and Guantanamo – than President Bush. So agree with him or not, he is at least doing what he thinks is right and/or necessary.

Whether the result of strategic politics or ideology, I suspect that the President’s approach to governing, especially in this time of continued economic strife, is doomed to failure. This is not a good time for moderates. In a Congress filled with people running in thoroughly gerrymandered districts, the main challenge to their jobs often comes from within their own party. If they are even perceived as being willing to compromise, they can expect an upstart to appear who is more ideologically pure. In a media environment where people increasingly turn to ideological news sources who provide simple answers and save them from the trouble of studying complex issues in any depth, compromise for many is akin to getting in bed with the enemy. And when you have a non-white president with a foreign-sounding last name, you can expect the fears and the criticism to be even stronger than normal.

So if the President is the liberal that many claim him to be, then he might as well start behaving like one. In a different era with better circumstances, the moderate approach might work. But in this situation, the opposing party is likely to demonize you no matter what, so you might as well go with what you believe. His new jobs proposal and recent statements about defending entitlement programs may be indications that he is taking this path. He must know, however, that his jobs proposal has little chance of passing, so it may be more of a campaign ploy than a genuine attempt to improve the economic situation. It may also be a way to shore up his base, a way of saying, “at least I tried,” and a means of distinguishing himself from those supposedly “do-nothing” Republicans.

The problem, however, if it is a problem, is that the president might not be the liberal that his more devoted party members expected when they voted for him. So if that is the case, then his political options are limited. He can keep doing what he thinks is right, hope that the economy somehow turns around enough before election time, and convince people that the Republican option is even worse. For the last thirty years, after all, Democrats have been on the defensive, unable to lay out a clear agenda as effectively as Republicans. But when you are in power, the “I’m better than that other guy” argument is not as effective. You have to run on what you believe and on what you have accomplished. And at the moment, not even Democrats are particularly excited about Obama’s record, and, as always, they are not as united as Republicans in determining what to do next. It is difficult to even know what Obama really stands for. He is either a politically calculating liberal or a devoted moderate. And either way, people who govern as compromising moderates, by their very nature, do not get very many people excited. The only ones particularly excited, in fact, are those convinced that no matter what Obama might do, he is a diehard liberal to the core, just biding his time until he can take away their guns.


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    • Jen Pearson profile image

      Jen Pearson 6 years ago from Alabama

      I agree that the democratic party has been weak in just about all ways for about 20 years, but especially the last 10. I wish we could really break the 2 party system so there were more options. (I'm not sure if the tea party rates as a 3rd party but I don't consider it much of an option). I would also like to have a "no confidence" option on the ballot. And if enough people voted "no confidence" all candidates would be scrapped and we'd start all over again. Perhaps that would also get more people to the polls. They would have an option to express that they don't like any of it.

    • profile image

      Andy 6 years ago

      I think that O'bama is just as white as he is non-white, and has an Irish-sounding last name (but with a foreign-sounding first name).

    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Good hub, FF! Voted up and useful.

      Obama, Obama, Obama! What is he? That is always the question. Here it is, more than half-way through his first term and we are still asking that question. That is not a question that appreciable numbers of people (including college history instructors like you) should have to ask at this point.

      That is the kind of question that is most appropriate at the time the world was first introduced to Obama in 2004, when he gave the keynote speech at the Democratic Convention nominating John Kerry.

      Why are we still asking this question about Obama? Was it because he has been hiding who he is (politically) all this time? Has he been playing possum or using the famous Muhammad Ali "ropa dope" tactic? The thing is, if you do that, at some point you have to actually swing.

      To my knowledge, Obama has always presented himself as a centrist, pro-business, New Democrat a la Bill Clinton and Al Gore. You know, since the late 1970s, with the rise of a national and international doctrine some call 'neoliberalism' both the Republicans and Democrats have moved way over to the Right.

      I really believe that Obama is a ('A rising tide lifts all boats') kind of man and politician. Such a stance does not leave room for bold action; he is not prepared to take sides or descend into what some call 'class warfare.'

      There is something strangely naive about Obama at the presidential level -- he shrinks from confrontation and starts negotiations by compromising. He seems to think that social transformation can happen without confrontation, pitting one side against another, taking power from some sectors and giving it to other sectors.

      By the way, I think Obama will squeak to a second term. With all his faults, he's not exactly Jimmy Carter!

      Take it easy.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 6 years ago


      It sounds like you are a follower of that guy featured on "The Daily Show." I was trying to write an article based on his behavior, not on his or his opponents' rhetoric. You have clearly bought into the generic rhetoric that passes for "political discussion" in our strange times. Obama is as much of a socialist as Bush was a fascist. And as mortimerjackson demonstrates in the comment right below yours, liberals are almost as frustrated with Obama as conservatives, which seems like a strange attitude to be coming from his so-called "socialist cronies."

      Don't worry, you will get to keep your guns. And don't worry about the country getting anywhere close to socialism. The powerful business interests who fund and lobby both parties will make sure that the government does not interfere too much with their operations. Given the widespread paranoia about socialist conspiracies, it's pretty easy for them to keep laughing all the way to the bank.

    • Matt Phillips profile image

      Matt Phillips 6 years ago

      Well written and thoughtful hub again, FF - this is clearly not the era of moderation but given his 2008 campaign, I'm not sure that we should have expected something different. I can't imagine trying to govern in the atmosphere that exists now...

    • mortimerjackson profile image

      mortimerjackson 6 years ago from California

      There seem to be a few people here who like to think of Obama as this mustache twirling super villain. Not going to name names or anything. But they certainly are silly.

      As for the article, the problem with Obama is that he devoutly believes in the Tim Geitner/Reagon-esque policies that he's adopted. And because of there is no expecting Obama to change from his right-leaning centrist ways. All the more sensible rhetoric he's touting now is just meant as a battle cry to garner democratic votes.

      I am so disillusioned with Obama that I think that for the sake of the democratic party, they should run someone against him.

    • Wayne Brown profile image

      Wayne Brown 6 years ago from Texas

      Your article paints a picture of Obama that many point out...don't pay attention to what he says, look at what he does. Certainly gun control is on his agenda but only in a second term after he can claim a mandate. Then, he will likely be wide open to signing international treaties which will extend to the aspect of gun control in the stipulations. As long as 2/3 of the Senate approve that treaty, we are stuck and no laws will have been established in America. What Obama is finding out is that America is a difficult place for a Socialist to disassemble over a four year period even when the conservative base seems to be struck stupid and totally in a reactive mode. The people of America ultimately will not stand for what he wants to do to this country which is build a society around a large controlling all knowing, all powerful federal government who grants or denies all to the public. America was not founded on that premise and hopefully it will never evolve as much as he and his socialist band of cronies want so much to see it happen here. We'll keep our country and we'll keep our guns. Thanks for a fun read! WB