It's time to lay down a marker on punditry about the Obama White House. During the next eleven months, it will become increasingly obvious that Democrats face an unfavorable political environment and that President Obama's approval ratings are trending downward. Inside the Beltway, these outcomes will be interpreted as evidence that the Obama administration has made poor strategic choices or that the President isn't "connecting" with the American public. Hundreds of hours will be spent constructing elaborate narratives about how the character, personality, and tactics of the principals in the White House inevitably led them to their current predicament.
What few will point out, however, is that the Obama administration (like every White House) is largely a prisoner of circumstance -- the combination of lingering economic weakness and an upcoming midterm election would hurt any president. David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel certainly didn't become any less skillful in the last few months; Obama is just playing a weaker hand than he was during the campaign and subsequent honeymoon period. As such, it's hard to know how much of the decline in the standing of Obama and the Democrats is the result of the choices the White House has made. Here's what I wrote along these lines back in August:
The problem... 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.
...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.
We won't get a conversation along these lines, however, because the media prefers a discussion about personality and tactics, which help create narrative storylines for day-to-day coverage and don't require policy expertise. Both liberal and conservative pundits are generally happy to go along for similar reasons -- the only difference is what narrative of Obama's decline is presented (i.e. "Obama is demoralizing the base by not fighting hard enough for liberal causes" or "Obama is alienating the country by going too far to the left").
Update 1/11 9:05 PM: Senior White House adviser David Axelrod acknowledged that the White House is partly "at the mercy of forces that are larger than things we can control" in an interview with Ron Brownstein (emphasis added):
Asked what has to happen in the next 10 months to produce the best possible result for Democrats in November, Axelrod didn't hesitate in identifying his top priority: an economy that is adding, rather than losing, jobs each month. "I think job growth is certainly number one," he said. "I think that's how most people measure a recovering economy."
To nudge that process along, he says, he expects Congress to quickly conclude legislation to promote job growth: "We have to take that up right away," he said. Still, he has no illusions about the capacity of further legislation to significantly affect the employment trajectory -- or the likely impact next fall if it doesn't improve.
"In certain ways we are at the mercy of forces that are larger than things we can control," Axelrod said. "If we see steady months of jobs growth between now and next November, I think the picture will be different than if we don't. I think Ronald Reagan learned that lesson in 1982. We're not immune to the physics of all of this. But I'm guardedly optimistic that we are going to see that progress. You know, there are signs of that. We're going to just keep doing everything we can to promote progress."
Update 1/12 1:58 PM: Matthew Yglesias approvingly links to this post, but takes a slightly different perspective:
I largely agree with that, but the state of the economy isn’t just “circumstances,” in part it’s a result of the Obama administration’s policies. In particular, they chose to take what they could get on stimulus and then move on to other elements of the agenda—notably health care. People in the future will look back and, with some reason, debate whether it would have made more sense to stay focused on the short-term economic picture especially when the condition of the economy turned out to be so much worse than forecast when the Recovery Act was initially outlined.
I'm not sure what exactly the White House could have done if it had "stay[ed] focused on the short-term economic picture" after February -- a second stimulus was politically impossible. A better question might be whether the compromises necessary to get the stimulus bill through the Senate will inflict a heavy political price on Obama in 2010. Paul Krugman and others have argued that the stimulus package should have been larger and not devoted so much money to tax cuts. But at the time Democrats only had fifty eight seats and needed support from two Republicans to pass a bill, so Obama cut a deal to get the support of Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Arlen Specter (who was then still a Republican).
Update 1/15 9:47 AM: For a classic example of the type of punditry I mentioned in the first paragraph above, see this Peggy Noonan column on Obama's supposed "disconnect" with the American people.
Update 1/15 5:30 PM: Ezra Klein expresses similar thoughts.