Why President Obama (Probably) Can't Win
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.