The Change Agenda At a Crossroads
From Health Care to Wars to Public Anxiety, Obama's Strength as a Leader Is Tested
Sunday, September 6, 2009
As President Obama's senior advisers gathered at Blair House at the end of July for a two-day review of their first six months in office, what was meant to be a breath-catching moment of reflection was colored by a sense of unease.
To a sleep-deprived White House staff, the achievements since taking office that chilly morning of Jan. 20 seemed self-evident. The agenda of necessity they had carried out to stabilize the economy was rapidly making room for Obama's agenda of choice: changing the way Americans receive health care, generate and consume energy, and learn in public school classrooms.
But opinion polls showed support for the president and his policies dipping sharply, and the disheartening numbers had shaken the confidence of some of Obama's staff. Vice President Biden addressed the anxiousness when the Cabinet and senior staff met in the State Dining Room in the White House residence the next morning.
"Did you really think this was going to be easy?" Biden said, according to one participant.
The slide has only quickened. Emerging from an angry August recess, Obama is weakened politically and faces growing concerns, particularly from within his own party, over his strength as a leader. Dozens of interviews this summer in six states -- from Maine to California -- have revealed a growing angst and disappointment over the administration's present course.
Democratic officials and foot soldiers, who have experienced the volatile public mood firsthand, are asking Obama to take a more assertive approach this fall. His senior advisers say he will, beginning with his Wednesday address to Congress on health care.
His challenge, however, is more fundamental. Obama built his successful candidacy and presidency around a leadership style that seeks consensus. But he is entering a period when consensus may not be possible on the issues most important to his administration and party. Whatever approach he takes is likely to upset some of his most ardent supporters, many of whom are unwilling to compromise at a time when Democrats control the White House and Congress.
"Until last week, he was still trying to play ball with the Republicans who said, 'We're going to bring you down,' " said Karen Davis, 42, a musician from Jersey City who raised funds for Obama last year. "Now I'm thinking, 'This isn't what I voted for.' "
Obama has brought change over his first seven months in office, often through direct government intervention, to areas as different as the conflict in Iraq and the American auto industry.
The economy is improving and bailed-out banks are paying back the money with interest. A smooth Supreme Court selection has brought the first Hispanic justice, Sonia Sotomayor, to the highest bench. America's standing in the world is improving, according to many polls, after Obama's widely broadcast address to the Muslim world, prohibition of torture in interrogation and decision to close the military brig at Guantanamo Bay.
But Obama's spending plans that will require $9 trillion in new borrowing over the next decade have alarmed conservatives in his own party, and he could not head off an investigation by his own Justice Department into the Bush administration's interrogation policies that he had made clear he did not want. Unemployment is still rising. His decision to expand the war in Afghanistan, deploying thousands of additional U.S. troops, has not come with a clear plan for how to leave.
Even though polls show fallen approval ratings, Obama remains more personally popular than his policies. His senior advisers say his leadership strength derives from the ability to remain calm in the maelstrom of 24-hour news cycles, a mark of his once-long-shot 2008 campaign. The anti-government anger that has risen from a thousand town hall meetings over the recess is now testing Obama's celebrated communication skills and a political style one confidante described as "unsentimental."