President Obama’s greatest political failure during his first two years was his inability to convince most Americans, especially most white Americans, that an activist federal government could provide them greater opportunity and security. Paradoxically, because of that failure, he will now get a second chance to make his case.
The Republican House majority that took power this week will bring to Washington what could be called the “Benjamin Button” Congress. Film (and literature) fans will recall that Benjamin Button lived his life backward, from old to young. Likewise, in the months ahead, Washington will relive many of the debates of Obama’s first two years—only in reverse, as the new GOP majority tries to unravel his key policy achievements.
The general assumption in Washington is that this dynamic will place Obama on the defensive through 2012. And it’s undeniably true that the president will be forced to fight many rearguard actions to protect such initiatives as health care reform. But early indications are that the White House also sees these Benjamin Button debates as a chance to take the offense for 2012—and to launch a renewed and reframed effort to contrast Obama’s vision of government’s role with that of the ascendant congressional Republicans. As David Axelrod, Obama’s chief White House political strategist, argued in a recent interview, 2010 unfolded largely as a referendum on Obama’s performance, but in 2012 “voters will be faced with a choice. And I view that as an opportunity.”
The referendum part could not have gone much worse for Democrats. Their pounding 2010 congressional losses were rooted not only in dissatisfaction over the economy but also in a widespread sense among the white electorate that the massive programs Obama and congressional Democrats had implemented—the stimulus, the bank and auto bailouts, health care reform—did not benefit middle-class families struggling in the downturn. Polls consistently showed that most white Americans believed that the health care plan would primarily help the poor, while whites and minorities alike felt that the programs intended to fix the economy (such as the stimulus and bailouts) mostly benefited the same interests they blame for breaking the economy: Wall Street, the wealthy, and big corporations.
The result was a ferocious discrediting of government activism, especially among whites. This surge of anti-Washington skepticism is the wave that House Republicans hope to ride. Their agenda revolves almost entirely around reducing Washington’s role—from the impending vote to repeal the health reform law, to the promises of large cuts in domestic programs, to the pledge to repeal Obama’s regulatory initiatives (starting with the carbon-emissions rules). Politically, their strategy rests on the assumption that Americans who recoiled from the president’s agenda to expand government will welcome Republican efforts to diminish it.
That might prove true. But as the arguments of Obama’s first two years unroll again in reverse, the dynamic could evolve. In several respects, this second round of conflicts could allow Obama and Democrats to frame the choices in ways more favorable to them.
In 2009 and 2010, as Obama was enlarging government’s reach, the GOP effectively channeled the electorate’s populist anger over the financial meltdown more at Washington than at business. But as Republicans seek to undo administration regulations that constrain powerful interests, they risk positioning themselves as defenders of corporate behemoths that are no more popular than the government. In an article this week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius signaled how Democrats will shape such debates when she wrote that repealing the health care law would mean “taking control away from families and their doctors and putting it back in the hands of insurance companies.”
The context could change on spending issues, as well. Americans mostly judged Washington’s spending during Obama’s first two years on its success at creating jobs—and despite economic analyses arguing that the stimulus, in fact, did create millions of them, most Americans saw only the net decline in employment that the recession still produced. But through 2012, Obama will be promoting federal spending in areas such as education, alternative energy, and infrastructure primarily as a means of improving the U.S.’s international competitiveness. With the immediate economic crisis past, Axelrod contends, Obama has a chance to “reset” the national debate around the question of “how we can win the future and what the role of government is in that as a support and catalyst.”
Congressional Republicans, and the 2012 GOP presidential contenders, will mostly answer that question by insisting that government’s role is to get out of the way by reducing taxes, spending, and regulation. That tack will find a substantial audience. But the White House is betting that most Americans, even if they found Washington’s hand too heavy over the past two years, will still want a stronger grip on the helm than Republicans are offering. Even after the 2010 backlash, neither side in this argument can count on a durable majority of support for its position. As the Benjamin Button stage of Obama’s presidency begins, the final scenes remain very much in doubt.
This article appears in the January 8, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.