St. Patrick’s Day 2013, at the White House

George E. Condon Jr.
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
George E. Condon Jr.
March 14, 2014, 9:05 a.m.

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.’”

Not ex­actly.

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.

What We're Following See More »
Puerto Rico Another Sticking Point in Budget Talks
16 minutes ago

President Trump’s portrayal of an effort to funnel more Medicaid dollars to Puerto Rico as a "bailout" is complicating negotiations over a continuing resolution on the budget. "House Democrats are now requiring such assistance as a condition for supporting the continuing resolution," a position that the GOP leadership is amenable to. it should be included. "But Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism aligns him with conservative House Republicans inclined to view its request as a bailout, leaving the deal a narrow path to passage in Congress."

Democrats Threaten Spending Bill Over Obamacare
3 hours ago

Democrats in the House are threatening to shut down the government if Republicans expedite a vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, said Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer Thursday. Lawmakers have introduced a one-week spending bill to give themselves an extra week to reach a long-term funding deal, which seemed poised to pass easily. However, the White House is pressuring House Republicans to take a vote on their Obamacare replacement Friday to give Trump a legislative victory, though it is still not clear that they have the necessary votes to pass the health care bill. This could go down to the wire.

IN 2014
Pentagon Warned Flynn Not To Accept Foreign Payments
5 hours ago
One-Week Spending Bill On The Table
6 hours ago

Members of Congress are eyeing a one-week spending bill which would keep the government open past the Friday night deadline, giving lawmakers an extra week to iron out a long-term deal to fund the government. Without any action, the government would run out of funding starting at midnight Saturday. “I am optimistic that a final funding package will be completed soon," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Trump: I’m Not Pulling Out of NAFTA
8 hours ago

"President Trump informed Mexican President Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday afternoon that he will not pull the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) despite reports earlier in the day that he had considered doing so. ... The three leaders agreed to proceed quickly with renegotiation plans as the initial review process comes to a close."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.