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By Jay Cost

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The Political Blunders of the Obama White House

If Scott Brown should defeat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts special election tomorrow, it will be a fitting metaphor for the political trajectory of President Obama's first year in office. A year ago Democrats were talking about Obama as the next Franklin Roosevelt, and suggesting that they were on the cusp of an enduring majority. Today, they are struggling to hold Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat.

Coakley will rightly get most of the blame should Brown actually pull off what once seemed to be an impossible victory. Yet much of the responsibility will have to rest with Barack Obama, who has guided his party so poorly that it is having trouble making an appeal to voters in Massachusetts.

To put it bluntly, the Obama White House has been politically inept in the last year. It has made serious miscalculations, and today it is paying a price.

Ultimately, the reason for these errors goes back to the greenness of the Commander-in-Chief himself, who lacked executive experience and had little first-hand knowledge of the way Washington functions. He put together a team too full of Chicago strongmen, campaign hacks, and sympathetic "Friends of Barack." Accordingly, he and his executive staff were ill prepared for managing the government. This led to three significant political blunders.


#1. A Lack of Bipartisanship. Nobody (except perhaps Obama's spinmeisters in the White House) would deny that the President has not been post-partisan. The typical response from the left has been: (a) the Republicans are too crassly political to compromise with; and/or (b) the two parties are now so far apart that there is no middle ground. The problem with this argument is that it fails to account for the near total absence of bipartisanship. Granted that polarization has reduced the number of gettable Republican votes - it surely has not reduced it to zero. Republican legislators like Mike Castle and Susan Collins are fewer in number now than in years past - but such members are still there, and Obama has been hard-pressed to win them over on anything of significance.

An absence of bipartisanship has created two serious problems for the Obama White House. First, it has left the Democratic Party solely responsible for all major legislation - which in turn means that the Democrats have taken on a greater share of the political responsibility for the state of the union. Bipartisanship would have brought Republicans into the governing process, and thus given Obama and his Democratic allies some cover.

Second, it has led to a predictable rise in partisan bickering, which Independent voters hate. If public opinion polling on the Massachusetts Senate race is correct, it will be Independents who swing to Brown in big numbers, which means they'll join Independents in Virginia and New Jersey in voting Republican. If Democrats cannot win back at least some of them, they will suffer major losses in November, 2010.

#2. Installing Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as de facto prime ministers. A common hobby of political commentators over the last year has been to compare Barack Obama to past presidents. At this point, it's pretty clear who he isn't like - and that's Woodrow Wilson (ironic, considering his background is so similar to Wilson's). During his first year in office, Wilson took an active role in managing the government. He reinstated the practice of delivering the State of the Union in person. He also was a frequent visitor on Capitol Hill, especially when he fought to keep the Senate from gutting his tariff reform.

Obama, on the other hand, has been content to let Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid handle the difficult task of legislating while he hangs back. His lack of involvement in the process has prompted many cries from Democratic legislators that he engage more fully.

His congressional allies are right. Obama has not been involved enough. Congress is not well suited to the task that Obama gave it. It is not a national legislature. Instead, it's a legislature where representatives from the various parts of the country convene. That's a crucial distinction, for it means that there is nobody in Congress who is ultimately responsible to the whole people. Congress has governed in a predictable way - handing out far too many special favors to wavering legislators and privileged interest groups. Congress often resorts to this tactic to stitch together a winnable coalition, but the process makes a mockery of the national interest.

Only the President can claim to represent the national interest, and it's his responsibility to guide Congress in a way that reflects it. Obama has failed to do that. He's let Congress legislate by its own lights, and the process has not been pretty. We talk about legislative "sausage making," but this has been sausage making akin to The Jungle. Accordingly, the public has lost confidence in the government to handle the many problems facing the country.

#3 Pursuing an agenda that doesn't fit the times. I'm talking about health care reform here. For decades, Democratic Presidents have dreamed of comprehensive reform of the nation's health care system. So, it's no surprise that President Obama wanted to try his hand at this, especially considering the outsized majorities his party has in Congress. In itself, this was not a mistake.

The mistake comes when we view this pursuit in context. Namely, 2009 was not a good year to focus the government so intently on health care reform. The public wanted a greater focus on the recession, but it didn't really get one. All it got was a hastily constructed, wasteful stimulus bill that was built on the assumption that unemployment would top out at 8%. As unemployment skyrocketed and the recession dragged on, watching the Senate Finance Committee debate insurance co-operatives and Cadillac taxes made it appear that the government was out of touch.

Additionally, the pursuit of health care reform was difficult to square with a public that has become increasingly deficit conscious. Very few people believe that these reforms will be "deficit neutral," and for good reason. This is a massive new entitlement program the Democrats are proposing, and our existing entitlements cost way more than initial projections, and more than we can today afford. One need not be a policy wonk to suspect that the Democrats' math is more than a little "fuzzy." This would likely not be a concern if the government were running a surplus or just a small deficit. But the 2009 deficit topped out in the trillions. That is bound to make voters wary of new, expensive entitlement programs.


These mistakes are all problematic by themselves, but take them together and they become much more powerful: the White House has pursued a partisan agenda and condoned congressional cronyism while ignoring the demands of the public. Martha Coakley's lousy campaign is a big reason why Ted Kennedy's seat is in peril. So is the high unemployment rate. But so also is this. Combined, these mistakes have created a very bad impression.

White Houses make mistakes. Presidents are often inexperienced when they come into the job. They often appoint high-level staffers who are ill prepared to guide the President to success. Corresponding political failures like these are fairly common.

The important questions moving forward are: how will the President respond? Will he acknowledge that his team has made mistakes? Will he correct the way his White House does business? Or will he continue to plunge ahead without recognizing his own faults?

It's inevitable that Presidents run into political trouble - and the kind Obama faces today is not terribly unique in the history of the executive branch. The real test of a President's mettle is not whether he encounters problems, but how reacts to them. As we move forward, I will be watching the President's response to political setbacks just as closely as I'll be watching the unemployment numbers. I think both will determine the course of our politics for the next several years.

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-Jay Cost