Obama: the king of low expectations

Healthcare controversies, dumb comments about the arrest of a Harvard professor, and ‘frumpy jeans’: is Obama losing his Midas touch?

Just six months in office, Barack Obama seems to be in trouble. July was a ‘disaster’ for Obama, according to The Hill, the leading congressional paper (1). The president seems to be ‘flipping back to the themes and comportment of Jimmy Carter’ (2), and declining support shows that ‘the American people are starting to wake up to the truth’ about Obama (3).

The past week was an especially rough one for him, summed up by the prime-time news conference that he called to discuss healthcare reform. First, it was bad enough that Obama’s responses at the press gathering were rambling and failed to clarify the issues at stake. Indeed, his health initiative – his most important domestic priority – now appears stalled, as Congress will not meet his ‘deadline’ to have a vote on a bill before the August recess.

But to make matters worse, Obama put his foot in his mouth towards the end of the press conference when he said police ‘acted stupidly’ for arresting prominent black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates outside his home. Obama began by admitting he was ‘a little biased here’ because Gates is a friend, and ‘I don’t know all the facts’, but he did not let that stop him from expressing his verdict. In a single swoop, Obama stirred up a national controversy (which has been given the title ‘Gatesgate’ by some commentators), lost his image as disciplined and post-racial, and ensured that healthcare was the last thing people would talk about.

The press conference fiasco was the culmination of a bad stretch for the president. As the economy has yet to recover and job losses continue to rise, Obama’s support seems to have languished. At the ‘100 days’ in office mark, he was widely praised for taking action to address the financial crisis, but since that time his job approval rating has fallen by six percentage points (4). According to a USA Today/Gallup poll, more people disapprove of his handling of the economy than approve (by a 49 per cent to 47 per cent margin), and likewise more disapprove of his healthcare policy (by 50 per cent to 44 per cent) (5).


Obama wearing frumpy jeans

And, to add insult to injury, Americans have even started to question whether Obama is cool. The big controversy about Obama for most of July has been his jeans. Yes, jeans. At the baseball all-star game, Obama came on to the field wearing faded baggy flood-lengths, complete with ironed creases down the middle; some refer to them as ‘mom jeans’ (6). Many cringed at the sight of Obama revealing his inner dork, and wondered what happened to the guy who was supposed to be not just a president, but also the epitome of hipness.

So, not the best of times for Obama. But the real question is: how serious are his problems? Not very, at least in the short term. The hyperventilated talk about his demise is overblown, premature at best, and a distraction from engaging with issues. Obama still dominates the US political agenda and holds a number of advantages over his opponents.

There is no doubt that Obama’s honeymoon is over. The euphoria that greeted his victory has evaporated, and his high standing in the polls has eroded. It is true that there is a risk he will not be able to oversee the passage of his healthcare reforms. Other major items on his legislative wishlist – including ‘cap and trade’ to reduce carbon emissions, immigration reform and financial services regulation – also may not be implemented. And, no matter what Obama manages to get through Congress, if the economy does not recover, his support will be limited.

The latest setbacks are noteworthy, but not the entire picture. Upon entering the White House, Obama said his number one goal was to deal with the economic crisis. And whatever one thinks of his policies, he has been extremely active and successful in implementing a wide array of programmes to address that crisis, such as the $787billion stimulus package, bank and auto bailouts, and so on. Obama’s record of activism certainly looks favourable when compared to the paralysis of, say, the British and Japanese governments.

Yes, Obama’s poll numbers are down, but that needs to be kept in perspective. At its peak, his approval rating was the highest since John F Kennedy, and all presidents in recent decades have experienced post-honeymoon dips (7). With all the talk of declining support, it can be easy to forget that his approval rating still stands at 57 per cent – at a time when unemployment is at nearly 10 per cent.

And while many critics write him off and assume he is on a certain road to ruin, there are plausible, perhaps likely, scenarios that would find Obama gaining the upper hand in the near future. For instance, the Democrats have an impenetrable majority in both Houses, and the differences between the conservative ‘blue dog’ Democrats and liberal Democrats with regard to healthcare are not that great. They should be able to pass some form of healthcare legislation, and when they do, it is likely to be promoted as an historic achievement on a par with the New Deal or Great Society, even though the reforms currently on the table will do little more than tinker with the current system.

Likewise, Obama will benefit from any improvement in the economy. Given all of the counter-crisis measures in place – from company cost-reduction steps to the huge government stimulus spending – it would not be surprising if economic growth turned positive later this year. If that happens, it’s easy to imagine Obama being hailed as the second coming of FDR, even though it’s likely that any upturn would be unsustainable, given the economy’s structural weaknesses (which have not been addressed by the emergency measures).

That Obama could gain politically from short-term fixes points to a factor that many of his critics miss: low expectations. Many speak of Obama’s ‘ambitious agenda’, but it appears ambitious mainly by comparison to the inactivity of his immediate predecessor, George W Bush. The Economist writes that ‘because the Obama cult has stoked expectations among its devotees to such unprecedented heights, he is especially likely to disappoint’ (8). But the real issue is the opposite – the bar for Obama’s government has been set too low, not too high. For example, instead of demanding a vision for a post-financial economy, critics focus on cyclical indicators like GDP and employment.

With the spotlight on Obama and his administration, many fail to notice that he retains a big advantage from his opponents’ severe disarray. The Republicans are still reeling from losing the White House and becoming a minority in Congress. Obama and the Democrats have been able to more or less walk over them: witness how the predicted blood battle over Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court turned out to be a non-event. The Grand Old Party has become known as the ‘party of no’ – that is, it offers no alternative except to say ‘no’ to the Democrats (or as in ‘no ideas’). And if you catch one of their hyped-up ‘young guns’ like Eric Cantor (a representative from Virginia) in action, you can see how the ‘party of no’ label could stick for a long time.

Republicans have become excited watching Obama stumble, but there is no guarantee that public dissatisfaction with the president will rebound to their advantage. Indeed, most of Obama’s setbacks have been self-inflicted rather than the result of Republican blows. The healthcare delay is due to Democratic in-fighting, and the Gates gaffe was entirely an own goal. Many of Obama’s latest difficulties flow from the intense scrutiny of his personal performance, as every judgment, phrase and even clothes selection gets evaluated. Yet he has only himself to blame for that (not right-wing talk radio), given that he promoted himself in such a personal and biographical way during the election.

Obama has lost much of his initial support and enthusiasm, and he remains vulnerable on many fronts, but his current political advantages should not be underestimated. Dismissing him as a Jimmy Carter repeat only reveals an unwillingness to come to terms about what is different about Obama and our specific political situation today. And cheering on Obama’s downfall without offering a coherent counter-argument is likely to keep him on top of the political heap for some time to come.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) Sam Youngman, ‘Analysis: July has been a disaster for Obama, Hill Dems’, thehill.com, 27 July 2009

(2) Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, ‘What’s Next, Mr President – Cardigans?’, Washington Post, 19 July 2009

(3) Ben Stein, ‘We’ve figured him out’, American Spectator, 24 July 2009

(4) David Paul Kuhn, ‘Obama’s support cracking at six months’, realclearpolitics.com, 23 July 2009

(5) Susan Page, ‘Poll: Less faith in Obama’s economic abilities’, USA Today, 20 July 2009

(6) Danica Lo, ‘Boo jeans: outfits are a presidon’t’, New York Post, 22 July 2009

(7) Brendan Nyhan, Obama’s approval drop not surprising, 21 July 2009

(8) ‘The Obama cult’, The Economist, 25 July 2009

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