The New Political Reality
The state of American politics is today fundamentally different than when President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid became the triumvirate of the legislative and federal branches of our government.
Less than a year ago, Barack Obama and the Democrats won a national election giving them total control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. With Al Franken's belated Minnesota victory, they even have a filibuster-proof majority in the upper house.
It's an enviable position. Or at least, it was.
In the months since, President Obama has experienced the steepest decline of public support for any modern president other than Gerald Ford following Watergate, as columnist Charles Krauthammer observes.
Meanwhile, the public's incredibly sour view of Nancy Pelosi has turned her into such a liability she is turning up in Republican television ads in much the same way Democrats featured Newt Gingrich in their messaging in the late '90s.
As a direct consequence of the pubic turning against the majority party, their legislative agenda has become mired in a morass of conflicting interests and a leadership vacuum. Democrat House members who would like to keep their jobs next year but represent conservative districts have suddenly become unreliable supporters of the liberal agenda. In the other chamber, their 60-vote majority hasn't produced much.
America remains a center-right country, yet the liberals in control of Washington assumed last year's election represented a fundamental leftward realignment of the electorate. If that were the case, the President would have had his health care bill signing ceremony by now.
Clearly the American people wanted a change in direction and perceived priorities, yet the current state of politics makes clear they did not suddenly embrace a left wing view of the role of the federal government just because they had differences with President Bush. Americans want a government that will get the economy on track, make government less of a burden, and defend the nation from those who would do us harm.
If the other team had focused on those priorities, they would be in a stronger position today.
The response we've seen from the majority party to their train coming completely off the tracks has been all too predictable: blame Republicans, and if you can find a way to blame President Bush too, so much the better.
It's a losing strategy, but the only one immediately available to them that does not involve adopting a more centrist policy agenda.
Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton, who campaigned as a "New Democrat" distinct from the party's liberal wing and demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to changing political circumstances. First, he championed his wife's plan for a complete federal takeover of health care in America, only to later declare the "era of big government is over."
While Clinton demonstrated flexibility, Obama and his team exhibit a more dogmatic approach that they believe they have the majority, they're not going to have it forever, and they're going to plow through to get their agenda passed now while they have the chance.
It's a blunt-force approach.
And it's failed. Concurrent with the President's plummeting approval ratings, a new Rasmussen Reports poll shows 51% of Americans believe Congress is too liberal, while only 22% believe it's too conservative. Health care marks the end of this phase of the Obama presidency.
Next week the President will attempt to reshuffle the deck with a speech to a joint session of Congress. With broad majorities in both chambers it's something he shouldn't have to do, yet it's something he must do, for while the liberal leadership in Congress may support the health care plan, the American people do not. The President will attempt to change the terms of the debate to get his way despite the objections of so many Americans.
Going into 2010, Republican victory is not yet assured. We have to work for it. The President's numbers are unlikely to remain in the tank forever, and when they tick up a bit there will be a long line of liberals in the media to talk about the "comeback."
That comeback, however, is likely to be limited by what Bill Clinton possessed and Barack Obama lacks: an ability to put aside liberalism when it's a loser with the public. It was in 1994, and it is today.