By Christian Caryl
(RFE/RL) — Barack Obama is facing the fight of his political life.
As the U.S. president heads into his third year, obstacles abound. Unemployment remains stubbornly high despite sky-high government spending. A historic drubbing at the polls in November’s midterm elections has energized Republicans and sown discontent within the ranks of his own Democratic Party.
And yet it’s far too early in the game to count Obama out. The office of the presidency offers numerous advantages to any officeholder who’s shrewd enough to exploit them — and if Obama can rise to that challenge, say some analysts, he will still have a chance to turn his fortunes around and win reelection in 2012. After all, they say, a Democratic president by the name of Bill Clinton did exactly that after a similar defeat in the middle of his first term in office in 1994.
William Galston, who was then working as a senior consultant on domestic policy to Clinton, says that the apparently dire situation Obama now finds himself in actually offers some strategic opportunities.
“He should stretch out a hand to the opposition and keep it there,” Galston says. “One of two things will happen. They either will spurn it, in which case the American people can see for themselves who wants to bring the country back together and who doesn’t. Or they’ll grasp it, in which case he will get high marks for the kind of leadership people are looking for. He can’t lose.”
Obama certainly hasn’t wasted any time in getting started.
On December 22, he fulfilled a campaign promise by signing a law allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military, while on the same day the U.S. Senate ratified the New START arms control agreement with Russia, despite objections from some quarters of the Republican Party.
Earlier in the month, Obama announced an agreement with leading Republicans to maintain Bush-era tax cuts in return for an expansion of unemployment benefits and other concessions. That deal has infuriated many members of his own party. Yet it has also allowed Obama to position himself as a leader who stands above the political fray, which was just what the president stressed when he explained himself to the public.
“A long political fight that carried over into next year might have been good politics, but it would be a bad deal for the economy and it would be a bad deal for the American people,” Obama said. “And my responsibility as president is to do what’s right for the American people. That’s a responsibility I intend to uphold as long as I am in this office.”
Two Fundamental Risks
Still, it’s a strategy that can easily go awry, and Obama will need every bit of political skill he can muster in order to pull it off.
William Mann, an expert on U.S. politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, notes that Obama faces two fundamental risks along the way.
First and foremost, there’s the economy. If it stays in the doldrums, he says Obama will have little hope of remaining in office no matter how clever his political maneuverings. Second, says Mann, there’s the threat of schism within his own party, where simmering discontent over the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan, compounded by Obama’s compromises with the Republicans, could ultimately trigger a challenge in the Democratic primaries come election year.
Nor, of course, can Obama count on the Republicans to play along. The Republican leadership in the incoming Congress, which meets for the first time on January 3, will find itself under pressure from a crop of zealous new representatives elected under the banner of the Tea Party, the grassroots conservative movement that is bitterly opposed to Obama’s programs of health care reform and broad government assistance to the economy.
Republicans have already vowed to do whatever they can to dismantle Obama’s health-care plan and thwart any additional government spending. And their new control over the House of Representatives gives them a powerful tool for doing just that.
The trick for the Republicans will be to avoid overplaying their hand. The party’s leaders know perfectly well that the tide of electoral dissatisfaction that swept them to a historic victory in November’s congressional election doesn’t quite add up to a nationwide mandate for whatever conservatives want to do.
Take The High Ground
For all the anger among voters, Obama’s approval rating (at 45 percent) still remains notably higher than that of the Congress (in the low 20s) — and both sides know it. If Obama plays his cards right, he should be able to use the prerogatives of office to seize the initiative.
Journalist Evan Thomas, writing in “Newsweek,” says that Obama should take the high ground by proposing strong action to stem America’s chronic fiscal weakness.
“His only hope to be an effective president, to secure his legacy, is to tell the whole truth about the deficit, the debt, and the only real way out — to be, as he put it, ‘straight’ with the voters.”
As Thomas points out, an Obama-appointed bipartisan commission recently issued a series of far-reaching recommendations on how to reduce the yawning budget deficit — recommendations that were met with considerable controversy but also assent from some key lawmakers on both sides of the party divide.
Obama responded by saying that the commission’s proposals required careful consideration — and warned that some unpopular but unnecessary remedies might be necessary to get America’s fiscal problems back under control.
The problem here, though, is that prescribing harsh medicine usually isn’t much of a recipe for popularity — especially Americans, who prefer their politicians to dispense optimism.
‘It’s All Gotten Lost’
Mann, of the Brookings Institution, warns against an all-too-narrow focus on the deficit. He says that the country’s fiscal problems are less important than coming up with a viable economic strategy that will counter the growing divide between haves and have-nots.
“It’s not what the deficit scolds say, which is that this is all that matters,” Mann says. “So there’s got to be something genuinely affirmative that promises economic growth whose dividends are shared widely in our society — something that hasn’t happened in a long time. You could point to individual speeches where he’s said that, but it’s all gotten lost — partly because people are so scared with the economic problems we’ve gone through.”
Some conservatives, like the former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum, agree that a clear focus on inequality could prove a vote-getter if the president can craft policies that tackle the problem in ways that have an immediate impact on voters’ lives.
“…[F]or the lower two-thirds [of Americans], we are living through the Great Depression,” Frum wrote in one recent commentary on his website. “So question: what is the Congressional GOP doing to help them? The answer is: nothing much.”
Frum, who is somewhat at odds with the Republican mainstream of his party, warns that some of his party’s economic proposals — such as tighter monetary policy — would actually rebound against the middle and lower classes and thus open up chances for the Democrats to make political headway.
Galston, the former Clinton adviser, suggests that Obama will have better luck if he focuses instead on reforming tax policy.
“He has an opportunity to reframe the tax rebate as an issue of tax reform rather than the Bush tax cuts yea or nay,” Galston says. “He’s bought himself a two-year breathing space within which he can challenge the Congress to join with him in a fundamental reform of the tax code, which he could persuasively denounce as being neither simple nor fair nor hospitable to economic growth.
“If he says that, 90 percent of the American people will stand up and cheer. At that point, it seems to me that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are going to have little choice but to join that discussion.”
Failure To Communicate
One thing is for sure, though. Obama will have little hope of recovering from his present slump unless he learns from the mistakes that have put him in this mess.
Republicans, for their part, predictably blame the president’s policies themselves. Obama’s defenders counter that his achievements aren’t actually as unpopular as they seem, and that much of the fault actually lies with the apparent inability of the White House to get its message across. They point out, for example, that most voters barely noticed the middle-class tax cuts implemented by Obama early in his term since the reductions were doled out in small amounts in workers’ monthly paychecks. That allowed conservatives to go on branding the president as a tax-hiking liberal — and he has never managed to find an effective way to counter those attacks.
Galston, who notes that the president acknowledges that he’s done a poor job of getting his message across to the electorate, says that Obama has a perfect opportunity to start winning back lost ground early in the New Year. That’s when the president will give the traditional State of the Union speech, which Galston calls the “politically most important speech of his presidency.”
If Obama knows what’s good for him, says Galston, he’ll used the address “to lay down the template for years three and four of the presidential term — and the template that he lays down will have an impact on whether he gets years five, six, seven, and eight.”
One way or another, in short, 2011 is shaping up as the make-or-break year for the presidency of Barack Obama.
Christian Caryl is the chief Washington editor for RFE/RL