Friday, November 27, 2009

Why Obama hasn't changed the environment in Washington, D.C.

Barack Obama campaigned that he was going to change the environment in Washington. Remember how he came to public attention at the 2004 Democratic convention by saying that there was no red or blue America, but a purple America? But now, less than a year into his presidency, no one could realistically argue that he has governed as the president of purple America. Instead, he's outsourced just about all of his domestic policy to the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate. They have taken the handoff of his authority and ran with it in crafting the stimulus package, budget, cap and trade, and health care bills. In the House, they notably excluded Republicans from the negotiating table. Republicans who were reeling after the election were able to recoup their strength and ally with the teaparty movement to oppose the Democrats' policies. So much for the idea of a new Washington under Barack Obama. Fred Barnes has some more ideas of why Obama failed in his vow to change how Washington does business.
First, Mr. Obama misread the meaning of the 2008 election. It wasn't a mandate for a liberal revolution. His victory was a personal one, not an ideological triumph of liberalism. Yet Mr. Obama, his aides and Democratic leaders in Congress have treated it as a mandate to radically change policy directions in this country. They are pushing forward one liberal initiative after another. As a result, Mr. Obama's approval rating has dropped along with the popularity of his agenda.

Mr. Obama should have known better. The evidence that America remains a center-right country was right there in the national exit poll on Election Day. When asked about their political beliefs, 34% identified themselves as conservative, 22% as liberal, and a whopping 44% as moderate....

It should have been no surprise the public gave a thumbs down to Mr. Obama policies. The decision to close the prison in Guantanamo, the takeover of General Motors and Chrysler, the bailout of banks and financial institutions (begun under President George W. Bush), the trillion-dollar deficits, cap and trade, the surge in the size and scope of the federal government—these were out of sync with the country's right-of-center majority....

Second, Mr. Obama misread his own ability to sway the public. He is a glib, cool, likeable speaker whose sentences have subjects and verbs. During the campaign, he gave dazzling speeches about hope and change that excited voters. His late-night speech at a Democratic dinner in Des Moines on Nov. 10, 2007, prior to the Iowa caucuses, convinced me he'd win the presidential nomination.

But campaign speeches don't have to be specific, and candidates aren't accountable. Presidential speeches are different. The object is to persuade voters to back a certain policy, and it turns out Mr. Obama is not good at this. He failed to stop the steady decline in support for any of his policies, most notably health care....

Third, Mr. Obama misread Republicans. They felt weak and vulnerable after losing two straight congressional elections and watching John McCain's presidential bid fall flat. They were afraid to criticize the newly elected president. If he had offered them minimal concessions, many of them would have jumped aboard his policies. If that had happened, the president could have boasted of achieving bipartisan compromise on the stimulus and other policies. He let the chance slip away.
As Barnes points out, Obama blew his opportunity to bring at least the more moderate Republicans to his negotiating table and govern more from the middle than from the far left of his party. And so he will have a hard time running for reelection touting all his new kind of politics rhetoric that played so well in the campaign.
In Washington it's business as usual, except for one thing. The bigger the role of government, the more lobbyists flock to town. By pushing for his policies, the president effectively put up a welcome sign to lobbyists. Despite promising to keep them out of his administration, he has even hired a few. So nothing has changed, except maybe that Washington is now more acrimonious than it has been.
Of course, this is not unique to Barack Obama. Remember how George W. Bush came to Washington making the same promises about working with the Democrats. Bill Clinton campaigned as a "New Democrat." Remember when the Democratic Leadership Council was going to be the model for a different sort of Democratic Party with its leaders such as Clinton, Al Gore, and Joe Lieberman? No one talks about the DLC anymore. They're not where the Democratic Party is heading.

The irony is that is a lot more believable to picture how John McCain would have ushered in a new era of bipartisanship than to imagine Obama doing that. McCain argued during the campaign that he had an actual record of working across the aisle while all Obama had were speeches about doing so. It turned out that speeches were not enough.

The fate of Obama's promises to change the environment in D.C. should be a salutary reminder to voters not to fall for that sort of rhetoric in the excitement of a campaign. And in 2012 Obama will have a record of deeds rather than the promises of rhetoric. He'll have a hard time making this sort of promise now that people have had a look at how the guy actually governs.
"Change must come to Washington," Mr. Obama said in a June 2008 speech. "I have consistently said when it comes to solving problems," he told Jake Tapper of ABC News that same month, "I don't approach this from a partisan or ideological perspective."
Yeah, right.