Deep in the American heart is a simple reason why the president and his party are languishing and likely to suffer in the midterm election. Although the Democratic leader has accomplished a lot, President Barack Obama’s even-keel temperament is out of tune with a troubled, edgy electorate.
Come Tuesday, while Obama's name is not on any ballot, the election's all about him and his governing style, so different from his charismatic campaigning style on the stump. Simply put, Obama lands soft punches in hard times. Even his sympathy seems a bit self-contained. Compare Bill Clinton's famous “I feel your pain" line at a town hall on the 1992 recession to Obama's recent response, "I understand your frustration," at a town hall on the distressed economy.
A true believer in sweet reason and artful persuasion, Obama may be too much of a consensus seeker in an age of historically high anxiety and fear. This signature character trait is cold comfort to the country now. No sense of urgency has emanated out of the Oval Office to confront the vast swath of loss out there--in jobs, homes, and morale.
From the first day Obama took the oath of office, the outsider who arrested attention with soaring words suddenly seemed less inspired and more prosaic, starting with the businesslike, measured cadences of the inaugural address. Gone was the sense of song and wonder we saw in the candidate. The speech lacked sparkle and resembled a grim to-do list, as the nation faced two wars and looming economic distress. Nobody envied his inheritance, but he was sailing with the wind of good will.
Yet in governing, Obama missed the lessons of history. He has not carried a big stick, as Teddy Roosevelt advised--which hurt his standing with friends and foes alike. He even turned the other cheek when a House Republican called him a liar on the floor during a State of the Union address.
Efforts to befriend and court moderate Senate Republicans on healthcare reform put no points on the board, cost months of time, and allowed the Senate and House minority leaders, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, to solidify a united front against him in both houses of Congress.
On a bill of such consequence, President Lyndon B. Johnson would have personally phoned Sen. Max Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, day and night, urging him to hurry the heck up. A similar deal to reach out to a few Republican senators on climate change legislation eventually collapsed behind the scenes. Ironically, Sen. Olympia Snowe, the moderate Maine Republican the president tried hardest to win over, turned out to be the most valuable player for her side of the aisle--because she put so much time on the clock, which weakened the final outcome for all Democrats.
[See which industries contribute to Snowe.]
For those who had high hopes for a more populist president, Obama spoke too softly on Wall Street's excesses in hard times. During the government bank bailout, some longed for the old fire of the New Deal, remembering the patrician Franklin D. Roosevelt on reckless banking and organized money: "They are unanimous in their hatred of me--and I welcome their hatred." That kind of talk has gone out of style, but in these times, the American people need to feel the president has their back in no uncertain terms.
Finally, Obama treaded too lightly when Abraham Lincoln may have let a general go for disregarding his wishes and orders--a lesson he learned early in the Civil War, when Union General George McClellan dillydallied with drills instead of actually fighting the Army of Virginia. According to Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama’s Wars, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General David Petraeus, the military commander in Afghanistan, and even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would not write up a plan on Afghanistan for Obama, so he just wrote one of his own. He also failed to fire General Stanley McChrystal the first time he spoke out of school, publicly revealing his request for 40,000 Army ground troops in Afghanistan--before Obama, the commander in chief, had made up his mind. Several months went by before the chatty warrior McChrystal (and some staffers) told a Rolling Stone reporter how they really felt about their civilian commanders. The general was finally fired for insubordination.
Washington political culture is quick to size someone up along the lines of: one of them or one of us. This is truer in a divided, distressed era like this when it's harder to see shades of gray. Searching for an elusive middle ground, Obama--still casting himself as the outsider--took his party through a political vale of tears. Today, he doesn’t have one single strong Republican friend or ally to show for demoralizing his own ranks (with a possible exception of outgoing Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, who defected from the Republicans as a survival strategy.) Keeping an elegant distance from the noise of the Capitol, Obama never fully bonded with his base, fellow Democrats, to become a "band of brothers" facing voters in the 2010 midterm test. So probably, their numbers will be fewer when the new Congress convenes in January, even with an eventful, important session for lawmakers to write home about this fall cycle.
The emerging paradox: President Bill Clinton lost the House and Senate Democratic majorities overnight in 1994 after losing a long fight for landmark legislation on healthcare insurance reform. Obama could face the same punishing fate after achieving exactly that historical goal. That's what the polls say, anyway.
After the hurly-burly, the election will be narrowly lost or won about two years into the Obama lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Either way, the presidential folly of soft punches in hard times shall become all too clear.