This year’s off-year congressional elections will be remembered for three things. The first will be the record-breaking levels of spending and the increasingly garish and over the top television ads that money made possible. The election’s legacy will be increased public dissatisfaction with partisan politics, as it is practiced in the United States, with renewed contempt for whomever winds up in control of the levers of power in Washington. Not a good sign for the continued health of our democracy.
While the man in the White House did not produce this sordid state of affairs, he certainly did not use the power of his office or his personal prestige to change things. And having offered himself as the candidate who would change the way politics is conducted in, and presumably out of, Washington, Obama will begin his last two years of his term with a credibility gap” larger than any we have seen since Lyndon Johnson’s day. That so much money could be spent on so much garbage is an insult both to public taste and to the spirit of the First Amendment.
The second will be the increasingly apparent incompetence and tone-deafness of Obama and his handlers. (Let the record show that, in spite of my repeated public chiding of him, I have come to miss Rahmbo! There, I said it. Now, back to reality.) The president could use a certified adult around to tell him “no” and to remind him that presidents are not allowed to indulge their impulses. (That Emanuel learned this lesson is apparent from the increased praise he has received from erstwhile observers of the Clinton presidency who once admonished him. Somewhere in my files rests a column in which the late Mary McGrory complained of official copies of the federal budget being sent to Capitol Hill with pizza stains on them and of a White House staff operating like 7-year-olds at soccer--all running towards the ball at the same time. She was not talking about David Axelrod, David Plouffe, or Patrick Gaspard at the time. Were she writing today, she probably would.)
For the first time since George Herbert Walker Bush was in the White House, talk is on the rise about a president “not getting it.” And as was true then, some of the president’s most ardent supporters are doing much of the complaining.
Less clear in the minds of his enthusiasts and detractors alike is exactly what Obama does not “get.” As the president would have it, his party is fairing poorly in this election because he has failed to communicate his message clearly. That is a tall order for most of us to accept. How can it be that a man as eloquent as Obama proved to be on the campaign and as intelligent as he clearly is became tongue-tied the instant he took his hand off of the Bible on January 20, 2009? (In the president’s defense, if one is to be made, the text of the speech Obama delivered on that day might be submitted in evidence. Anyone reading it now, will, with justification, recall the line from the last episode of The West Wing in which the outgoing president tells his successor how John F. Kennedy, through his memorable address, made life tough on his successors.)
A more plausible explanation for the predicament in which the president finds himself might be that Obama’s message has gotten through, that he and his team have concluded that the public does not like what he has offered up, and decided to change the subject. They have experimented with just too many for any other explanation to be credible.
In his farewell address to the nation, Ronald Reagan eschewed the title of “the great communicator.” “It was not that I was a great communicator,” Reagan explained, “but that I communicated great things.” Here we may have a case of a president getting his ideas not only across but enacted, only to find that the public disapproves of them (or, at the very least, is not completely “sold” on them). Having charted his course, Obama fell back on personal attacks on John Boehner and incredible, and almost McCarthyite allegations against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (“how do we know that they didn’t do it?”), as well as talk about “driving into ditches,” and responses to planted questions about his Christian beliefs.
With most sides in agreement that Obama may have misread his mandate (thinking that the country’s collective mind was more “progressive” or “liberal” than “centrist” or even “center-right”), the running debate throughout the campaign has been whether the president, like Bill Clinton before him, will make necessary accommodations with an increased number of Republicans who will populate Capitol Hill, or, in a manner reminiscent of Reagan after the shellacking his party received in 1982, will opt to “stay the course.” (I say Obama stays true to form, and bad form, at that.)
Then, of course, will be the results of the election. My predictions: GOP will gain nearly 50 seats in the House (I will say 47) and pick up enough in the Senate to bring their number up to 49. That may make Joe Lieberman, once again, the man for both parties to court and to watch--and Joe Biden a “stay at home” vice president. With all the players in place, the questions toward year’s end will be which side of Pennsylvania Avenue makes the first move and in what direction.