If it turns out the life of Barack Obama’s presidency is measured in months, left-leaning analysts will agonize over what went so wrong. Their explanations will range from confusion over how a stunningly gifted orator never mastered the greatest national pulpit, to consternation about the intransigence of Republicans and the eruption of the Tea Party, to sober hand-wringing about the intractable nature of 21st Century democracy.
But the mourning will not match the genuine misery and perplexity many Americans feel regarding the state of the nation. For all the explanations of how Obama has fallen short of his promise, the simplest one is in the discontent of those 23 million plus individuals who are under or unemployed, some for such long stretches that they have fallen through the cracks of the government’s official statistics. These men and women are the source of a national fury over why things are the way they are, and they and the Americans who know them have proved resistant to deflecting responsibility or changing the subject.
To be sure, as his defenders never cease to point out, Obama was greeted with the debris of a national calamity. The country seemed to be teetering on the edge of depression for stretches in late 2008 and early 2009, a casualty of a Washington environment that privileged and made unaccountable the giant government sponsored housing enterprises and a reckless Wall Street culture that took the risk out of lending for the mortgagor. But rather than tackle the crisis with single-mindedness, Obama veered off in too many scattered directions: a stimulus whose legacy is a slew of poor returns on investments in alternative energy and uncompleted construction projects, a partisan healthcare law that drained off a year of the administration’s efforts, a massive overhaul of the carbon producing economy that was too unwieldy for even many Democrats to embrace, a financial industry bill that has not stopped excessive leveraging in the capital markets. The portfolio is one that Obama and his allies have strained to explain, much less justify.
So much of the defense of Obama’s results is weighted with excuses. But the record is one that Democrats would be mortified by if it had John McCain’s name on it: unemployment ratcheting up to as much as 10% before it headed back down; the limpest recovery in modern times; staggering levels of poverty among minorities and children; appalling losses of middle income savings and stagnant worker wages. It is an inventory that has caused millions of American to lose faith in both Wall Street and Washington, and that has left America decidedly more stratified between rich and poor (imagine the Democratic angst if a McCain recovery had left massive corporate profits while workers stayed in an uncertain, desperate state, precisely the state of play for the second half of Obama’s terms)
The debates, especially the first one in Denver, signaled how thin the prospective agenda for four more years really is: beyond the old pledge to add to the tax burden on American small businesses and entrepreneurs—an eventuality that would barely dent the deficit—and generalized promises to try again on tax reform, immigration, and energy policy, the cupboard seems light, without much reason to think that initiatives that Obama’s own party balked at would suddenly become viable. There is certainly little that would rally Americans who have lost ground on Obama’s watch.
It is impossible to assess Obama without addressing the central Democratic thesis about why he has disappointed. From African American talk shows to the editorial pages of the nation’s establishment papers, the argument is advanced that Obama has been undone by a ferocious kind of Republican opposition. The case does not survive scrutiny: Mitch McConnell’s vaunted pledge to impede Obama was made with a weakened hand of forty Republican votes in the Senate, not even enough to sustain the dreaded filibuster. Even the addition in early 2010 of one more GOP seat did not result in actual blockage of one Obama initiative during the first two years of this presidency. To a degree that Obama’s partisans don’t understand or won’t concede, the entirety of his economic agenda was written into law in those first two years.
The bracing truth is not that Obama was denied a chance to govern, but that the government he produced has proved so unappealing and been so inadequate to the challenges of the times. The healthcare reform, Obama’s most notable victory, is illustrative. The law’s convoluted path, the single instance since the thirties of a party-line vote carrying landmark legislation, has contributed to Washington’s distance from Main Street. That gap will only grow more distressing as middle income Americans are subject to new taxes if they don’t purchase insurance, as small businesses minimize their work force to avoid the law’s mandates, and the estimates of higher premiums touch the pockets of ordinary families.
Obviously, the case against Obama is just one half of the equation in this election. Mitt Romney’s campaign took time to find its footing, and the exigencies of winning his party’s nomination damaged his standing for months. But as Romney has come into full view, it is evident that his central virtue is experience in effectively managing complex systems, a trait rare in national politicians. As much as the President demonized it, Romney’s development of Bain Capital into a private equity model required him to master the challenge of maximizing investor earnings in extremely unfavorable circumstances: Romney’s tenure there was a consistent narrative of turning companies around and if anything, his campaign should have touted it more. His gubernatorial term in Massachusetts happens to be exactly what a successful presidency would require, from a capacity to bargain with as well as outmaneuver a hotly partisan opposition, to a willingness to experiment with the fine points of policy. Romney’s is the record of a consistent conservative, but not one who would wage his own distracting counter-revolution. His history is one of grappling with hard political questions while showing a respect for the side of a dispute that does not share his views.
Critics will argue that Romney’s tax and spending cut proposals are too weighted toward the wealthy, and there is no question that like any set of campaign promises, the details will need to be refined. (The governor’s plans are notably more specific than Obama’s wafer-thin outline on healthcare and financial reform in 2008). But Romney has laid down a marker that he can be judged by, that consists of prioritizing budget discipline and that evokes strategies that even many Democrats embrace, like scaling back the corporate tax rate and simplifying the tax code. The blueprint is the basis for an authentic bipartisan compromise in 2013.
There is one final story: one of how the Obama administration misread the American people by governing against the sentiments of a center-right country and confusing its isolation with moral authority. It is the signature not just of a flailing presidency but a weakened liberal philosophy. Herein lies the final Obama tragedy: an inability to refashion his party’s philosophy in a way that strengthened public trust. The case that another term would magically improve things rests too much on blind faith, and Obama has drawn from that well once before. The national interest demands a change in our leadership.