Saturday, April 10, 2010

Although it seems much longer, it has only been less than a month since some pundits were declaring the death of the Obama Presidency. The failure, or success, of health insurance reform would "devastate" the Administration and Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections. Words like "doomed" and "failure" were tossed around like inevitabilities by respected news sources.

But in politics, like in many things, success begets success. More importantly, narratives of success beget narratives of success. Today, a mere 20 days after the House of Representatives passed health insurance reform by a 219-212 margin , Obama's presidency is now "emboldened". The president's "sensible" Nuclear Posture Review was announced last week, immediately garnering both international, bureaucratic and domestic support. A few days later, President Obama signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. As new job numbers for March were announced, coverage focused on President Obama's argument that the U.S. economy was "turning the corner." And finally, just yesterday President Obama was given the opportunity to name a new Associate Justice to the Supreme Court with the retirement of Justice John Paul Stephens, which the media is reporting as putting the GOP "on the defensive."

Our northern neighbors in Canada described the dynamic well:

His presidential voice carries more weight than just a few weeks ago. It's an odd political world where the difference of a few congressional votes on a subject such as health care can be said to define a presidency's success.
The CBC adds that President Obama's "influence abroad is clearly greater if he is seen to be a winner at home."

The Administration won't be able to wave a magic wand and create world peace and stability now. But the Administration's hand has clearly been strengthened, and the White House is once again in control of the political narrative in the United States, critically important as it faces financial regulation, the upcoming nuclear summit, and more tough decisions in Afghanistan.

What a difference a couple of weeks make.

3 comments:

David Schoeller-Diaz said...

Beau,
Thought-provoking article. The issue is, it remains unclear whether the more positive dynamics noted above will lead to significant changes in public support for the President and Democrats overall, both of which continue steadily declining in popularity. Support for the Health Care package remains stubbornly moderate, and various of the recent presidential achievements and upcoming decisions (nuclear deal, supreme court nominee) may face stiff resistance. A critical election approaches demanding sharp damage control: after two positive congressional elections for Democrats, a backlash of unclear proportions appears inevitable. After that, the administration will have to learn how to govern with a less supportive congress, hopefully with better results than so far. A long-term view, definitely beyond a few weeks, will be necessary for the president to demonstrate to the American public that he can deliver on the key issues. A proactive political strategy will be needed, with strong achievements to back it up. If the administration does its job right, 2012 will hold a choice between a President who took on major challenges and is getting stuff done, versus a party that has clearly been much more concerned over fueling flames of resentment and obstructing progress. The memory and patience of the electorate are remarkably short, and I only hope the positive steps taken are not undone once the political tides change.

Beau said...

David,
Great points. My thoughts-

I don’t think that the last couple of weeks mean the Obama presidency can now be declared successful. My larger point was just that narratives in American politics have a tendency to spin out of control – note for example the difference between coverage of President Obama leading up to health insurance reform versus coverage of candidate Obama during certain stages of his presidential campaign.

My more "micro" point was specifically that Obama has turned the corner on the often extremely negative coverage leading up the House’s vote on health insurance reform. Look no further than today’s headline in the Washington Post – “On world stage, Obama at ease as seminar leader” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/13/AR2010041302988.html?hpid=topnews)

I’ll also quibble with a couple of your points:
-I don’t think that the nuclear deal or the Supreme Court vacancy are necessarily political losers for the President. Signing a deal to keep Americans safe from terrorists getting loose radioactive material will probably play well in the press, and Obama will look presidential (or "at ease") herding world leaders. A Supreme Court nominee allows Obama to play up his disapproval of the unpopular Citizens United decision and remind the majority-pro-choice voters (http://www.pollingreport.com/abortion.htm) that he supports a woman’s right to choose, as well as likely make the case that he’s a major champion for women (assuming he picks between Wood and Kagan). Republicans are also worrying that their opposition to a Supreme Court nominee would allow Democrats to more easily paint Republicans as knee-jerk obstructionists.

Of course none of this means that the Democrats are now going to gain seats in the mid-terms or vanquish all opponents – I agree with you that the Democratic Party faces an uphill battle in November (just look at the most recent generic candidate preference polling - http://voices.washingtonpost.com/thefix/house/republicans-hold-steady-lead-i.html). The popularity of a president is a factor in mid-term elections, but it certainly isn’t the only factor. But, I would simply say that the change in the tone of press coverage bodes well for the president and Democrats, especially as compared to a couple of weeks ago.

David Schoeller-Diaz said...

Beau,
Thanks, very reasonable thoughts. While your attitude may be somewhat more optimistic, I do not believe we have truly substantive disagreements. Best, DASD

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