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Obama's Long Fall
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Old 11-03-2014
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Default Obama's Long Fall



Obama's Long Fall




By Julian E. Zelizer - NEW YORK DAILY NEWS - Sunday, November 2, 2014, 5:00 AM

How a liberal hero who boasted of transcending politics got dragged so far down

President Obama enters the lame-duck period of his presidency a little grayer than when he started, much more cynical about the possibilities for changing the ways Washington works and less optimistic about what a left-leaning Democratic President can accomplish in the current political environment.

The disappointments are not all a product of his making. Yes, he has governed in a toxic political environment, one that would have made it difficult even for an Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt to achieve progress. When the President reached out to extend olive branches, very often the GOP bit his hand.

But Obama and his supporters can’t simply blame those dastardly Republicans for his rude awakening from the halcyon days of 2008, as politically and personally tempting as that may be.

Obama himself — the man who told us, again and again, that this time would be different — is also responsible for the long, painful slide from hope and change to partisan gridlock.

Too many times, the President seemed passive in dealing with his political agenda, waiting for Republicans to define the debate before taking a strong stand of his own, when it was already too late.

Too many times, he made perplexing errors of basic political strategy.

And too many times, whether dealing with campaign finance or homeland security, the President seemed comfortable or resigned to live with the status quo.

These are his mistakes, and they help explain why some of his most enthusiastic supporters are finding it ever harder to rise to his defense these days.

Even the millennial generation, the very voters who helped bring him into office with their optimism about what he could do for American politics, now prefer a Republican Congress. Obama’s approval rating with this generation of voters, according to the same poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics, has slipped from 47% in April to 43% today.

If the midterm elections produce a Republican Senate, as many expect they will, Obama is in for an even rougher ride over his last two years.

Republicans will interpret a victory as a mandate against him. The GOP will use its oversight and investigative power to cause all sorts of problems for the White House and flex its new legislative muscle to push policies that will leave their presidential candidates for 2016 in stronger standing.

Even if Democrats squeak by and keep control of the upper chamber, House Republicans won’t be any less confrontational. Many Tea Party Republicans will double down their efforts, concluding that the efforts of the GOP establishment to defeat their candidates in the primaries were the reason that the party did poorly.

What was the President’s role in bringing this day to pass?

Early in Obama’s presidency, he fatefully decided to invest a huge amount of his precious political capital from the 2008 election in the explosive issue of health-care reform.

He stepped back from supporting more robust economic and financial reforms that might have been harder for Republicans to block in the wake of the financial collapse. The outcome, a health-care bill that provides millions of Americans with medical insurance for the first time, is a major accomplishment.

But for decades to come, Obama and his supporters will debate the tradeoffs and political costs that resulted from taking up health care so soon.

We must look at a number of other painful compromises through the lens of that momentous choice.

When Obama was elected in 2008, one of his greatest aspirations had been to transform the national security policies that President George W. Bush had put into place in response to 9/11.

Like many Democrats, Obama had argued that the federal government had been too quick to violate civil liberties and break international treaties in pursuit of terrorist threats.

Nor did he want to deploy military force in overseas entanglements unless they were absolutely essential. After all, his campaign was fueled in no small part by its opposition to the war in Iraq.

Now Obama finds himself to be much closer in 2014 to President Bush than he hoped for. Most of the homeland security infrastructure that Bush put into place remains intact.

The administration has now increased its military presence in the Middle East by conducting air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, with great potential for mission creep to require further escalation.

Back in 2008, Obama talked a lot about the need for the government to address climate change and immigration reform through the legislative process. Under Bush, the federal government had done almost nothing to address the huge damage that was resulting from carbon emissions.

With immigration, the story was different. Bush came out of the wing of the GOP that strongly favored liberal immigration reform, believing that the influx of persons into our states was best for the country, best for business and best for the party (which could benefit from growing Latino vote).

Obama was very eager to address both of these challenges, two of the great domestic problems of our time, and he promised an idealistic and bipartisan push to make it happen.

But these policies were not a major part of his first few years in office. By the time he was prepared to deal with immigration, it was too late — after the 2010 midterms, when Republicans regained control of Congress and the Tea Party pushed the party to the right.


Then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama in 2008.

Even after Obama beat Mitt Romney by a substantial margin 2012, causing intense conversations within the GOP about the possibility of their losing the vote of immigrants for the next generation, Republicans stood firm and Obama proved incapable of changing the subject.

When Senate Republicans agreed to an immigration reform bill, House Speaker John Boehner — under intense pressure from Tea Party Republicans — backed away. Immigration advocates have been frustrated that Obama has now delayed using executive power to address immigration, a delay that they believe was meant to help moderate Democrats fearing a backlash in the midterm elections.

There’s a deeper presidential failure we must acknowledge and reckon with.

Much of Obama’s hope in 2008 rested on his belief that bipartisan civility and compromise was possible. Despite what all the social scientists were saying about the structural roots of polarization which went back several decades, the President expressed confidence that he could break through the partisan noise.

Indeed, he had gained national attention when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic Convention about the false claim of a red and blue America, insisting that there was just a United States of America. In his long primary fight with Hillary Clinton, Obama was the optimist, Hillary the hard-nosed pragmatist.

Obama campaigned in poetry and continued, far too often, to govern the same way, and that approach repeatedly failed to yield results.

This certainly will prove to be one of his greatest political miscalculations, one that left him searching for elusive compromises early in his presidency to the frustration of many congressional Democrats who never thought they were possible. They wanted him to be a tougher partisan fighter, to stop seeking compromise with Republicans hell bent on obstruction and to instead push for bills that would rally Democrats.

All the evidence shows that America remains as deeply divided politically as when he started his term. The Republicans have become more obstructionist since he entered office and the tenor of political discourse has deteriorated.

You can hardly blame a President for the fervor of his enemies. You can, however, fault him for failing to effectively attack the structural problems in a Washington that accentuates polarization.

Running in 2008, Obama was acutely sensitive to the argument that the way our political process works has a big impact on what our government can do. In 2007, he told voters that he was a “longtime advocate for public financing of campaigns.” It was not enough, he said, to talk about the issues that needed to be addressed.

If our politicians operated in a broken campaign finance system and a political process dominated by big lobbyists, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get anything done.

Obama never made government reform a central issue in the way that President Jimmy Carter did in 1978 when he worked with Congress to pass a huge ethics bills.

Indeed, in 2008, Obama broke precedent when he was the first major-party presidential candidate since 1974 to bypass public funds in the general election, and the limits on private contributions that came with them.

The Supreme Court struck a major blow the campaign system with its Citizens United ruling, which struck down prohibitions on independent political expenditures. Obama strongly criticized the decision, warning it would “open the floodgates for special interests,” but then in 2012 accepted the help of a super PAC, Priorities USA Action, created by some of his former assistants.

This year, the liberal billionaire Tom Steyer is outpacing most of his opponents with super PAC spending for candidates supporting the environment. This election cycle is an orgy of spending, on both sides.

The final challenge that the President talks frequently about, but failed to marshal the country to address, is the growing economic inequality that now defines the national experience.

This is an era in which the state of the economy defines a President’s leadership or lack thereof, and Obama’s legacy remains in profound doubt.

Obama has taken some important steps to ameliorate the situation, most importantly expanding health-care coverage to millions of Americans.

But the dispiriting trend lines overall show no sign of changing — nor is there any reason to believe they would change if Congress were suddenly to pass the jobs bills he has advocated.

The President has not put forth the kinds of policies that will generate the type of job growth that is needed to reverse decades of economic decline in key sectors of the economy.

His relationship with labor unions and liberal Democrats has been fragile and his willingness to live with a political system that favors economic elites has not helped.

Obama still has a few years to make some progress. But the chances are poor that he will get much more done. The euphoria of 2008 is gone. He has spent most of the political capital that he once had, and the forces of opposition are only becoming stronger with the midterm campaigns and the prospects of another presidential election in 2016.

The genie is exhausted, and it is out of the bottle.

Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University and a New America fellow, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society,” forthcoming from Penguin Press.

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