Many liberal bloggers and commentators are now blaming President Obama for a strategic failure in his approach to health care reform specifically and his presidency in general. In a TNR Online article, Ed Kilgore compares this rising tide of liberal doubt to the "doldrums" of August '08 when Obama was tied in the polls with John McCain, suggesting that the criticism may be overblown:
I am suggesting that this August's sense of progressive despair feels remarkably similar to last August's. This week last year, the Gallup Tracking Poll had McCain and Obama in a statistical tie... Democratic confidence, so high earlier in the year, was sagging...
These doldrums dissipated by the time of the Democratic convention later in the month, but reemerged in September, when McCain actually moved ahead in some polls. And the diagnosis of the problem was typically that Obama was too passive, and wasn't articulating a clear enough message. This should sound familiar to connoisseurs of contemporary progressive concerns about Obama.
Now, this deja vu sensation I'm having obviously doesn't guarantee that the current struggles over health care reform and climate change will have as happy an ending as the presidential contest. But it may well provide a plausible argument for giving the president the benefit of the doubt today as we should have done a year ago.
Though Kilgore provides plenty of caveats, the comparison is supposed to be reassuring -- Obama had a plan then and it worked, so you should have some degree of confidence in him now. The problem, however, is that the underlying fundamentals have changed.
Back during the presidential campaign, the fundamentals always favored Obama (assuming no racial backlash). The August "doldrums" were a minor interlude before political gravity asserted itself. In the end, Obama converged almost precisely to the median forecast of leading election polls.
The fundamentals of the presidency are very different. The approval ratings of presidents tend to decline over time and they typically have a difficult time passing important legislation after their first year or two in office (i.e. once the low-hanging fruit has been picked). As Greg Marx and Matthew Yglesias have correctly pointed out, the president's abilities to influence Congress on domestic legislation are actually quite limited. And in Obama's case, he faces a poor economy that will push his approval numbers into the 40s very soon. The one factor working in his favor are the large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, but the Senate caucus lacks sufficient unity and discipline to push through health care and other controversial legislation in the form that he wants.
As a result, the August '08 comparison isn't particularly useful -- Obama's plan for the next six to twelve months is far less likely to succeed than his general election strategy. Unfortunately for Obama's liberal critics, it's not clear that a strategic change will make much difference either. Good fundamentals make political strategists look like geniuses (see: Karl Rove 9/12/01-11/2/04) and bad fundamentals make the same strategists look ineffectual (see: Karl Rove 11/3/04-1/20/09). In the current environment, there's no magical strategy that will change the political dynamics of this presidency.
So what can we expect? Obama is likely to cut some sort of deal on health care and declare victory. He will then face an even more difficult menu of legislative battles (including the climate bill and immigration), many of which will not be resolved to the satisfaction of liberals. In the absence of a 9/11-type foreign policy crisis, Obama's presidency -- like almost all others -- faces a downward trajectory of power and influence for the next couple of years. The big question is whether the economy will revive enough for him to be reelected.