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By Jay Cost

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What Went Wrong with Obama?

Robert Reich had a thought-provoking piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Unfortunately, his argument begins to fall apart two thirds of the way through.

Reich argues:

A stimulus too small to significantly reduce unemployment, a TARP that didn't trickle down to Main Street, financial reform that doesn't fundamentally restructure Wall Street, and health-care reforms that don't promise to bring down health-care costs have all created an enthusiasm gap. They've fired up the right, demoralized the left, and generated unease among the general population...

The administration deserves enormous credit. It accomplished as much as it possibly could with a fragile 60 votes in the Senate, a skittish Democratic majority in the House, and a highly-disciplined Republican opposition in both chambers. Yet Bismarck's dictum about politics as the art of the possible is not altogether correct.

The real choice is between achieving what's possible within the limits of politics as given, or changing that politics to extend those limits and thereby more assuredly achieve intended goals. The latter course is riskier but its consequences can be more enduring and its mandate more powerful, as both Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan demonstrated.

So far, Barack Obama has chosen the former course. Despite the remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign to inspire and rally Americans behind him, as president he has for the most part opted for an inside game.

Reich's column is in line with other liberal output that has argued that Obama did not go liberal enough. He "opted for an inside game," rather than "extend(ing) those limits" to achieve big, i.e. liberal, goals. If he had done the latter, middle class Americans would have felt the positive benefits already and his poll numbers would not be sliding.

I disagree with this line of thinking. I doubt very much that Obama could have used "the remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign" to "inspire and rally Americans," thus "changing that politics." All Presidents face real constraints, and Obama is no different. Acknowledging and identifying them can help us understand where the President has gone wrong.

On the stimulus, he certainly could have gone no bigger than what he did. Reich fails to acknowledge the political fallout from an even larger stimulus package. Deficit spending is a major political issue that has dominated public discussion since the battle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Reich and Paul Krugman might fault Obama for not spending more, but their preferred level of deficit spending is politically untenable. It always has been. Even FDR was consistently worried about deficits. Granted that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was not enough economic boost for the price tag, but that does not meant that the price tag could have or should have been higher. Not in this country. See: Perot, H. Ross, peculiar appeal of.

As for health care, Obama's goal was an FDR- or LBJ-style comprehensive, systematic reform of the system. It was to be his Social Security, his Medicare. But Obama simply lacked a sufficiently broad mandate to pull off such a feat. If the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act seems less august than Social Security and Medicare, that's because Obama's political position upon assuming the office was not as strong as FDR or LBJ's.

To appreciate what I'm talking about, consider the following picture. It compares Obama's election in 2008 (by county) to previous landslides - Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936, Eisenhower in 1952, Johnson in 1964, and Reagan in 1980. These maps come from an excellent French cartographer named Frédéric Salmon, whose work can be accessed here. They follow a different color scheme than the red-blue divide we are used to. In the following maps, Republican counties are in blue - and they become darker blue as the county votes more heavily Republican. Meanwhile, Democratic counties are in yellow - and they move to brown as the county votes more heavily Democratic.

Presidential Maps 1932-2008.jpg

As should be clear, Obama's victory was geographically narrower than Reagan's, LBJ's, Ike's or FDR's. Substantially so. Obama did much more poorly in rural and small town locales. They have a history of progressive/liberal support, but Obama was unable to place himself in the rural progressive tradition of William Jennings Bryan. This makes his coalition the most one-sided of any on the above maps. Most of his political support comes from the big cities and the inner suburbs. The exurbs, small towns, and rural areas generally voted Republican (with notable exceptions in the Upper Midwest).

In fact, if you look at presidential elections going back 100 years, Obama's is the most geographically narrow of any victors except Carter, Kennedy, and Truman - none of whom had transformative presidencies. Even Bill Clinton in 1996, whose share of the two-party vote was comparable to Obama's, still had a geographically broader voting coalition. Ditto George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Voting input inevitably determines policy output, and these maps hold the key to Reich's disappointment with the President. In our system, it's not just the number of votes that matter, but - thanks to Roger Sherman - how they are distributed across the several states. Obama's urban support base was sufficient for political success in the House, which passed a very liberal health care bill last November. But rural places have greater sway in the Senate - and Obama's weakness in rural America made for a half-dozen skittish Democrats who represent strong McCain states. The evolving thinking on the left - "Obama should have used his campaign-trail magic to change the political dynamic" - is thus totally misguided. The "remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign" never persuaded the constituents of the red state Democrats he had to win over. Why should they suddenly start doing so now?

Obama simply lacked the broad appeal to guide the House's liberal proposal through the Senate. So, the result of "going big" was an initially liberal House product that then had to be watered down to win over red state Senators like Landrieu, Lincoln, Nelson, and Pryor. The end result was a compromise bill that, frankly, nobody really liked. Liberals were disappointed, tantalized as they were by the initial House product. Conservatives were wholly turned off, recognizing as they did that the guts of the bill were still liberal. And Independents and soft partisans were disgusted by congressional sausage-making and wary of the bill's provisions.

Was there an alternative approach the President could have taken? I think so. Such a tactic would have acknowledged the sizeable McCain bloc. McCain won 22 states, making his coalition a politically potent minority. Obama should have governed in light of this. I don't mean in hock to it. He didn't have to make Sarah Palin his domestic policy advisor, but he should have ignored the hagiographers who were quick to declare him the next FDR. These flatterers always manifest themselves anytime a new Democrat comes to the White House, and they are of very little help for Democratic Presidents who actually want to be great.

What he should have done instead was disarm his opponents. If he had built initial policy proposals from the middle, he could have wooed the moderate flank of the Republican party, marginalized the conservatives, and alleviated the concerns of those gettable voters in the South and the Midwest. This is precisely what Bill Clinton did between 1995 and 2000, and it is what the President's promises of "post-partisanship" suggested.

Our system of government can only produce policy when geographically broad coalitions favor it. The Senate, more than any other institution, forces such breadth. Obama created breadth the wrong way. He watered down initially liberal legislation to prompt just enough moderate Democrats to sign on. Instead, he should have built policy from the center, then worked to pick up enough votes on either side. The left would have been disappointed, but the right would have been marginalized and, most importantly, Independent voters - who have abandoned the President in droves - might still be on board.

A revolutionary idea in our polarized political climate, I know. Still: ask your average swing voter what he or she thinks of such an approach, and watch them nod in agreement.

-Jay Cost