There seems to be some confusion among Barack Obama supporters about why he is less popular now than he was upon winning Election 2008. As someone who wanted him to win that election (I didn’t vote, but only because I never got my CA absentee ballot) but disapproves of his tenure so far, I can at least articulate my own reasoning.
I thought that the Iraq War, the torture of detainees in the War on Terror, the GOP’s unnecessarily bellicose foreign policy rhetoric, and the notion that Governor Sarah Palin is a qualified occupant of the White House all needed to be repudiated in the strongest possible terms. Thus it made sense to support candidate Obama despite disagreeing with much of his domestic agenda.
Since I’ve long thought that President Obama is a temperamentally cautious pragmatist who conforms to existing power structures rather than challenging them, I never bought the rhetoric about “change you can believe in,” but it is nevertheless disappointing to watch a candidate who campaigned against the pernicious influence of special interests submit so utterly to them. Perhaps the financial crisis demanded bailouts and a stimulus package, but it surely also called for prudent structural reforms. I’m utterly unconvinced that those are a priority for the current administration, though I am eager to be proved wrong.
On health care, I don’t object to helping more folks to get insurance — indeed I think that improving the health care system for the worst off among us is worth doing even if it’s all that we do, and I’d happily sign on to this more ambitious plan if we lived in a world sane enough to offer it up as an option. Instead I’m asked to support a plan rife with giveaways for insurance companies, exemptions for unions, lots of dough for a single Midwestern state, and a double-down on the deeply dysfunctional employer based system. I’d prefer piecemeal reform to a massive restructuring that combines the uncertainty of sweeping legislation with preserving most of the status quo’s worst features.
I’m a great fan of Kevin Drum’s blog. His position on health care is defensible enough: a) major legislation that covers lots of presently uninsured people is a good idea; b) getting it through Congress requires holding our noses at the kinds of bribes and giveaways to special interests that are prerequisites for moving big legislation. c) The benefits are here worth the cost. Indeed I cannot entirely fault Congress for approaching major legislation in that fashion. There are powerful structural incentives for them to do so.
On the campaign trail, however, Obama didn’t campaign as an establishment pragmatist. He didn’t say, “Health care reform is important, so I’ll hold my nose, cut deals with a lot of special interests, and get more Americans covered in a very imperfect way.” Nor did he try to communicate that message in more politically palatable language. Instead he made being a change agent the foundation of his appeal. He talked, as they all do, about a broken system in Washington DC, noting that issues like health care reform were too important to be addressed in the same old way. Again, I didn’t particularly believe any of this, but having my cynicism justified isn’t winning President Obama any points.
Perhaps a down economy is the biggest reason that President Obama’s numbers are down, but I cannot help but wonder if his slip isn’t also due to a lie at the heart of his campaign. This man is calculating politico, as comfortable as anyone we’ve got at navigating Washington DC as it exists today. It’s a style of leadership that is perfectly defensible. But he sold himself as an idealistic agent of change whose special contribution would be fixing a broken status quo.
When you’re talking approval ratings, overall impressions like this one are far more important than most specific issues, and Obama supporters who took the man’s rhetoric seriously have reason to feel misled on everything from Gitmo to gay rights to bank bailouts to health care deals cut with industry players to courting special interests generally. That they’d still prefer him to McCain/Palin, Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck eventually begins to register as damning with the faint praise that it is. Obama defenders are perfectly within their rights to point out that sane alternatives to the president’s agenda haven’t many GOP champions. But let’s raise the bar a bit. Is there anything President Obama has accomplished that we couldn’t have expected from a President George H.W. Bush or a Bill Clinton?
Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings.
So it goes.