Robert Kagan recently wrote on this page that, foreign policy decision by foreign policy decision, President Obama has given Americans what they say they want. But the result hasn’t made them proud of America or of their president.
The same phenomenon may explain the disappointment in Obama’s domestic record.
Case by case overseas, Kagan suggested, Americans agree with Obama’s calls: pull out of Iraq, wind down in Afghanistan, steer clear of Syria. But the emerging picture of an America in retreat, and a leader half-heartedly committed to promoting liberty, is not what they were looking for.
At home, the fateful moment came in 2011 when Obama cold-shouldered the bipartisan panel he had appointed to right the nation’s finances for the long term. That, too, was a decision in keeping with the polls.
The Simpson-Bowles commission had called for higher taxes and slower growth in Medicare and Social Security spending. Neither is popular. Had Obama endorsed the recommendations, Democrats would have forfeited their trustiest campaign weapon: warning oldsters that Republicans want to take away their retirement benefits and health care. Obama’s reelection in 2012 seems to vindicate his judgment.
But at what cost? He defeated a weak opponent by tearing him down as a job-killing plutocrat. He didn’t come close to regaining the control of the House that he lost in 2010. His second-term agenda is meager.
Now he stands in danger of losing the Senate, too. His weapon to ward that off is a poll-tested and cynical campaign against Republicans’ “war on women” — cynical because it overstates the wage gap between men and women, oversimplifies the cause of the problem that does exist and proposes an ostensible solution that wouldn’t reach the true causes.
Imagine instead that Obama had embraced the bipartisanship of Simpson-Bowles and tried to steer through Congress a package that made the tax system fairer and solved the nation’s long-term debt problem.
He might have empowered Republicans in Congress — the Roy Blunts and Bob Corkers — who want to work with Democrats and get things done.
The effect on the Democratic Party would have been even more liberating. Instead of chaining themselves to 20th-century arguments and interest groups, Democrats could have begun to shape — and realistically promise to pay for — a 21st-century progressive program focusing on early education and other avenues to opportunity. They could have resources for family policies that really would help address the wage gap.
Instead of a partisan president on the defensive with slipping poll numbers, Obama could have been, as he had once promised, the president of both red and blue America.
Some (including Obama) argue that his refusal to embrace the commission he had appointed reflected simple political realism. One version of this argument is that his endorsement would have been poisonous, given GOP animosity toward him; by staying aloof he enhanced the chances of a fiscal deal. We know how that panned out.
Another version is that it would have been hopeless; he had no serious Republican partner and so no chance of muscling reform through Congress. We’ll never know whether that is true; we can be fairly sure, in this season of LBJ nostalgia, that other presidents would have given it more of a try.
Others would argue that Obama was right to steer clear of the “austerity” of Simpson-Bowles. But the commission was never about austerity; it recommended and won Republican support for a higher level of government spending than Democratic or Republican budgeteers have proposed since.
What it was, rather, was an acknowledgment that in an aging society, some government spending that has been put on autopilot has to be reexamined so that other priorities — national defense, national parks, colleges, railroads, Head Start — can get their due, and that they all have to be paid for. These were the hard choices that Obama promised, as a candidate in 2008, to face.
He called them hard choices for a reason, of course: One by one, each decision stirs opposition. Public opinion surveys, and political advisers, sound the alarm. “Saving” Social Security, like staying aloof from Syria, polls well.
But just as Americans don’t like to think of themselves as people who will allow a dictator such as Bashar al-Assad to murder and torture with impunity, they don’t like to think of themselves as a nation incapable of coming together to solve big problems. Obama may have won the polls but lost the battles that count.
Recently, in rallying allies to help Ukraine, Obama has shown the kind of leadership abroad that Americans expect of their president. He could still do the same at home. With nearly three years left in his presidency, he is a lame duck only if he chooses to be.