IT is possible that President Obama will win re-election next November. Being the incumbent is a powerful advantage. True, it means you are responsible for everything that goes wrong. But it gives you the ability to set an agenda, and it allows you to command press coverage by the mere fact of your existence.
It’s a good thing for the President that he has the power of incumbency, because he doesn’t have much else going for him. The coalition that won him the 2008 election has fragmented, and it cannot be pulled back together again. Many of the individuals in it will undoubtedly support Barack Obama in 2012, but the broader sense of purpose is gone.
The election of 2008 seemed to show that America had become a nation with a liberal majority. This was not true: surveys show that Obama’s rise was not accompanied by a decline in the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as conservative. But briefly in 2008, the President’s party seemed to become what the Conservative Party in Britain has always aspired to be: a party not of class or of region, but of the nation.
For the Democrats, that was an illusion. As 2012 approaches, Obama’s coalition is being whittled back to its core constituents: the poor (who benefit from increased welfare spending), the very well-educated (who vote liberal to assuage their guilt), and the public and private sector unions (who want the government to give them goodies).
Any honest assessment of Obama’s difficulties has to begin with the fact that the situation in 2008 was very bad. Obama himself made relentless efforts to blame George W Bush for this, though the on-going collapse of the euro shows that the problems were not confined to the United States.
The problem for Obama today is not that unemployment is high and growth is low. The problem is the arrogance of a President who promised he would fix these things and who, even now, is happy to claim that “all the choices we’ve made have been the right ones”. The comeback is obvious: if they were right, why didn’t they work?
In retrospect, Obama’s presidency will look like a brief, ironic flourish of big government that effloresced at the precise moment when it became obvious that the post-war model of ever more borrowing and ever more benefits was piling up debts the Western world could not afford to pay off.
What is remarkable is that the President has shown so little interest in this irony. True, he is a liberal’s liberal, and true, it is not easy for policy-makers of any stripe to rethink their convictions on the fly. The demands of government at the top level are crushing, and when a new approach fails to work, very few have the energy to try again.
The President’s disconnect is not just about how difficult it is to make policy, even at the best of times. It also reflects something more astonishing: Obama, lauded in 2009 as one of the most intelligent men ever to win the White House, appears to be uninterested in the hard details of public policy. He is a theme man, not a details guy.
What is even more remarkable is that Obama has lost his personal magic. As Washington Post reporter Scott Wilson pointed out earlier this month, Obama has a problem: “people.” He dislikes lobbying his own party, has few allies on Capitol Hill, and almost no close friends. He is by nature a loner, and he therefore lacks the wider circle that all presidents need to defend their policies and advance their agenda when times get tough.
Most American politicians are in the game because they like people, are interested in policy, or both. Even after three years, it is not clear what Obama likes, and, therefore, why he’s in the game at all. His rise was so swift, so irresistible, that he seems to stand for nothing more than the hopes that others invested in him on the way up.
It is not surprising that, as those hopes fade, he is going down as fast as he rose. Nor is it surprising that a man who ascended on the claim that he would bring a new civility to American politics now peppers his speeches with accusations that his opponents are in favor of “dirtier air, dirtier water, [and] less people with health insurance”.
These attacks are not just the response of a leader who feels the reins slipping from his grip. They serve a purpose: Obama has given up on the broad coalition that he won with in 2008, and is reverting to motivating the traditional Democratic constituents. If they give him a victory in 2012, he will relish it, but such a victory would represent not the revival of the Obama coalition, but its final collapse.