Almost nothing in politics goes in a straight line up or down. President Obama’s recent political fortunes have tended, over a year, to be heading gradually down in a fairly straight line, culminating with the November mid-term elections which his party decisively lost, much of the reason for this being Mr. Obama’s performance in office during the first two years of his term.
The election resulted in a dramatic loss of the Democratic Party’s control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and siginificant losses in the U.S. Senate where the Republican party, still in the minority, can now block, using the senate’s 60-vote rule for cloture, almost any major legislation from the Obama White House.
Following the election, Mr. Obama was seemingly slow to acknowledge the setback to his party (and thus, to him), but finally an acknowledgment came, and with it a compromise to continue the so-called “Bush tax cuts” accompanied by a temporary extension of unemployment benefits. Many on the right and the left subsequently proclaimed that the president was now shifting to the political center, and that he had recovered his political standing. This assertion has been supported by some recent polls showing that his poll numbers are making a slow rise after long falling into the low 40’s (and even a few in the high 30’s).
At the same time, President Obama has made notable changes in his personal entourage, including a new chief of staff and press secretary, as well as among his economic advisors. None of these changes, so far, have been particularly controversial; in fact, most (such as the appointment of Bill Daley as chief of staff) have further reinforced the notion that the Obama administration is re-tilting to the center.
Simultaneously, a strong Republican and conservative majority has taken over the U.S. house of representatives, with an impressive new leadership of John Boehner as speaker and Eric Cantor as majority leader. Behind them is a huge freshman class of new members of Congress who are flush from election victories across the nation that clearly signaled the voters’ desire for change from the Obama legislative agenda and priorities. In the U.S. senate, Republicans made significant gains, and now have a comfortable cushion to field the minimum of 41 votes to block the Democratic majority on virtually any issue. Furthermore, surviving Democatic house and senate incumbents who must face the voters in less than two years have already seen what would likely happen if they followed the Democratic leadership and the president in voting for legislation that is too radical and unpopular. At least six Democratic senators and several more members of the house who are considered “moderate” or “centrist” have already signaled they may vote with the GOP on several critical bills. Clearly, the momentum has shifted to the Republican side of the aisle.
To top it all off, one of the most reliably perceptive conservative commentators, Dr. Charles Krauthammer, has asserted that Barack Obama is “back.”
So it would seem that the argument that President Obama is now adopting Clintonian centrism, and is back on track for his re-election is iron-clad.
As a constant admirer of Dr. Krauthammer and other conservatives now suggesting a pivotal reversal, at least in public perception, has taken place for President Obama, I want to raise a note of caution. (No less than the prescient Tony Blankley has preceded me in suggesting that Dr. Krauthammer has possibly gone too far, and has questioned that some profound change change in the political soul of Barack Obama has occurred.)
I think all the juries remain out on the next course of U.S. politics, especially as we head into the next presidential election. My observations of Barack Obama, before and after he assumed the presidency, tell me that no critical change has yet taken place, and that what we are seeing now is a rearrangement of appearances, all designed to enhance his re-election, but at the lowest possible cost. Yes, he is more skillful than former speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose ludicrous performance in the ceremonial handing over the gavel to Mr. Boehner, indicated the compulsive and self-delusional attitude of the old Democratic leadership in its stubborn extremity. These are politicians who believe their own self-congratulatory press releases.
Mr. Obama may yet transform himself and his agenda to the political center, and he may yet recover some of his public and strategic momentum. The economy may recover as a result (ironically) of conservative policies, and events in the world may yet turn in the favor of the U.S., but that is a lot of maybes. It was inevitable, I suggest, that following the election and his compromise with the Republicans on taxes, Mr. Obama’s numbers in polls would rise in the short term. What I am also suggesting, however, is that his fundamental attitudes, and that of the Democratic leadership around him, are not yet changed. The country has changed, and said so (the 2010 election), but President Obama has so far been preoccupied with appearances, still hoping (I suspect) to finish the radical agenda he and his colleagues began to enact in the previous Congress.
This is now a challenge to the new house, and even to the new senate which still has a Democratic majority. With President Obama holding the veto card, can they communicate successfully to voters an alternative agenda and alternative priorities over the next two years? If not, and if the substance of the conservative argument is not borne out, then Obamian “appearances” might be enough to thwart the present conservative momentum.
Frankly, I think 2011-12 is going to be much more fascinating, much more politically instructive, and much more important than 2007-08. There will be many zig-zags between now and November, 2012. There are, I repeat, few straight lines in American politics.