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Tough lessons from Obama's first year

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By Eugene Robinson
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

President Obama begins his second year in the White House with such anemic approval ratings, you'd think he was another Ronald Reagan: Among recent presidents, only the Gipper had fallen so low in the esteem of voters at this stage of his presidency.

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In the end, things worked out rather well for Reagan -- a landslide reelection, success in changing the course of the nation and the world, canonization by the Republican Party. In this context, the serenity of Obama's political advisers is understandable. It has been a tough year, and the president has had to make a host of decisions that he knew would be politically unpopular. If history is any guide, these early approval numbers say little about where Obama will stand politically in 2012, much less how he will rate at the end of his presidency. The White House is right not to panic.

But serenity isn't the same as complacency. There are important lessons from the past year that Obama and his team had better learn if he is to achieve his goal of being a "transformational" president like Reagan.

The first is that the "enthusiasm gap" matters, and it matters a lot. There is no way that a Democratic candidate for the Senate from Massachusetts, running to fill the seat that the late Ted Kennedy held for decades, should have anything but a cakewalk to victory. It's true that Martha Coakley ran a mediocre campaign and that Republican Scott Brown ran a very good one, but still, this is Massachusetts we're talking about. That Obama would have to fly in two days before the vote and stump for Coakley and the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority was absurd.

But the Brown-Coakley race is just the most stunning manifestation of a phenomenon that we've been seeing for at least the past six months. Vocal opponents of the president and the Democratic congressional leadership are eager, motivated and so excited that they can't wait to grab their "tea party" signs and march around the neighborhood. Vocal supporters of the president are . . . well, at the moment they aren't even particularly vocal.

There are several reasons for the enthusiasm gap. Some are beyond the president's control -- the decision by Republicans, for example, to take a purely obstructionist stance toward Obama's domestic initiatives. "No to Washington" is a powerful message at a time when so many Americans are anxious about the future. But the president has ways to counteract such a message, and the fact is that Obama has not given the Democratic Party's liberal, activist base much to rally around.

The health-care reform legislation that the administration and Congress have worked so hard to achieve is ending up being perceived as "the best we could hope for." The Senate bill is in many ways a breakthrough, especially in covering 31 million uninsured Americans and ensuring that no one can be denied insurance because of preexisting conditions. But progressives had to give up the idea of a public insurance option, and organized labor had to compromise on taxing "Cadillac" health plans. When all is said and done, these activist constituencies may applaud the final result, but they won't be jumping for joy.

On the economy, there is probably not much more that the administration could have done to ameliorate the pain so many Americans are feeling. But only recently has the White House been trying to demonstrate that jobs are a top administration priority, and there still is no sense of great urgency about mortgage foreclosures. By contrast, bailing out Wall Street was seen as an emergency. It is galling -- and, to many administration supporters, dispiriting -- that the big banks are reporting huge profits and have resumed paying enormous bonuses, just like in the bad old days.

The takeaway, I would suggest, is that Obama has to be seen as fighting for more than "the best we could hope for." And there are indications he may have learned this lesson: The new tax that he has proposed slapping on the big financial firms is not only good policy but good politics as well.

The other major reason for the enthusiasm gap is that Republicans have been winning far too many battles in the "message" war -- for example, turning "affordable health care for all" into "big government takeover." The administration's opponents are defining the issues in the minds of voters.

That's something the Great Communicator never would have allowed.

The writer will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


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