President Obama can be excused if he feels frustrated by his low poll numbers and declining political fortunes. After all, he was so certain he knew what voters were saying when they gave him 53 percent of their vote just 23 months ago. And those same voters today are so downright ungrateful for his efforts.
As White House aides are quick to point out, most of what he’s done as president are things he promised in the campaign. So the angst inside the White House is palpable, starting in the Oval Office. Nowhere was that more in evidence than in the president’s recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine. Ticking off his accomplishments, he somewhat poignantly added, “You look at all this and you say, ‘Folks, that’s what you elected me to do.’”
You can do what you promised and still trigger voter unhappiness. It is not that Obama has broken promises or done things at variance with his campaign promises. It is that he did not seem to grasp that all promises are not created equal. Like most presidents, he misread his mandate.
“What the president ran on and what the president has done is tackle the issues that for years and years and years we had put off,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. All true. “But,” as Gibbs acknowledged, “you overlay everything going on with 9.6 percent unemployment and 8 million jobs lost.”
Where White House strategists persuaded themselves that they had a mandate to overhaul the nation’s health care system immediately, many voters saw a simpler, twofold mandate — fix the economy first and don’t be George W. Bush.
Obama, of course, is not the first president to stumble on interpreting his mandate. Nobody was ever blunter about the feelings that wash over a winning candidate than Bush was after he won a narrow re-election in 2004 with under 51 percent of the vote.
“After hundreds of speeches and three debates and interviews and the whole process, where you keep basically saying the same thing over and over again, that when you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view,” Bush told reporters two days after his victory, adding that “the people made it clear what they wanted.” He concluded, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”
But Bush totally misread his mandate and wasted his “capital” on a fruitless campaign for privatization of Social Security while the economy slipped into recession and the Iraq War went into overdrive. Not surprisingly, the president’s popularity plunged.
Seven decades earlier, Franklin D. Roosevelt was flush after scoring the biggest electoral victory in American history. But even winning 98.5 percent of the electoral votes didn’t mean what Roosevelt thought it did as he launched his second term. Only two months after his big win, he suffered an embarrassing defeat when he tried to “pack” the Supreme Court.
For Obama, the mistake was seeming to put something — anything — higher on his priority list than fixing the economy. “He came into office with two agendas — the agenda of choice that he ran on and the agenda of necessity that economic events forced on him,” said William Galston, President Clinton’s domestic policy adviser. The mistake, he said, was “not recognizing that he had to adjust, that he couldn’t put the pedal to the metal and do both flat out, which is what he tried.”
He also erred in his message, never really sticking to one theme and jumping from one measure to another without satisfying public demands for a focus on jobs.
“It is not that the administration over-interpreted its mandate; it was just that they didn’t stay clear with that basic message and theme,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future. “I don’t think they’re being punished because of efforts on health care or energy. I think they’re being punished because the economy sucks, banks got bailed out, billions were borrowed, and the president didn’t have a clear message.”
Obama’s impatience to get to health care proved politically confusing. “He presented the stimulus as if it was the answer and then went on to other things,” lamented Borosage. Obama confused voters, he said, by shifting so quickly from fixing the economy to talk of deficit reduction. “That succeeded in making Americans think the president didn’t have a clear idea of what he was trying to do,” he said.
Obama’s problems were deepened by the unpopularity of what voters saw when they did see him work on the economy.
“The White House had a theory about how it would go from strength to strength because success would build on success,” said Galston. “But it didn’t work out that way because in order for it to work, the first steps have to be popular to create the predicate for the next steps. And that condition wasn’t fulfilled.”
Obama had talked much about FDR but missed one of the lessons of his first two years. “The first steps that Franklin Roosevelt took were popular and seen to work very quickly and lance the boil. So he was able to go from strength to strength,” said Galston, noting as well that FDR waited two years before veering from the economy and introducing Social Security. “He understood that there is a sequence of things; that he first had to stabilize the economy and restore at least a modicum of public confidence.”
Amid all the comparisons between Obama and FDR that the White House encouraged in early 2009, that is one lesson this White House, to its peril, simply missed.
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