Published on TheHill.com on August 2, 2011
The pathetic performance of President Obama in the debt debate is showing the left how incompetent and weak a leader it selected. Many are wishing they had Hillary Clinton in the White House instead! Once the man has to move beyond a set teleprompter speech, he is lost. During the BP disaster, he showed what a poor administrator he is. And now he has belied any pretensions to legislative skill. He is the un-Lyndon Johnson.
The consequences of this disillusionment will be profoundly felt in the 2012 election. Republicans and independents will vote against Obama with their hands. Democrats and liberals will do so with their feet — by staying home. Turnout was the key to Obama’s 2008 electoral majority. The vote among under-30 whites, African-Americans and Hispanics set new records. Obama won, after all, about the same share of the white vote — in total — that Gore did in 2000. He only won because the young white turnout offset defections by middle-aged and elderly whites, black turnout rose from 11 percent to 14 percent and Hispanic votes rose by 1.5 percentage points. Any diminution of the white-hot intensity of enthusiasm that animated his 2008 election will cost him dearly.
Compare the performance of Bill Clinton in the 1995-96 government budget crisis with that of Obama in the latest skirmish. In Clinton campaign tracking polls, the president’s approval rating rose from 40 percent in May 1995 to 54 percent in January 1996. This 14-point increase has its opposite equivalent in Obama’s plunge from 55 percent approval in May 2011 to 40 percent approval in late July in the Gallup polling. The one went up and the other went down by nearly identical amounts.
For Clinton, the standoff was a chance to show his strength. No Republican ever believed the president with a reputation for wanting to please and waffling would ever stand up to the GOP. But Clinton did, day after day, hammering away at his position and defending it against all comers. Obama had no plan, and his positions shifted with the hour. First he wanted a clean debt-limit increase with no budgetary attachments. Then he would settle for cuts, but only minor ones. Then he signed on for major cuts as long as there were tax increases to go with them. Finally, he abandoned it all, asking only that the deal last until after the election so he would not have to go through this process again.
Clinton reaped great credit with independents and moderates for fashioning a third way between liberal demands for deficits and conservative cuts to Medicare. Obama’s attempts to portray himself as pushing a “balanced approach” proved laughable in view of his surrender at the end. And his deal-making to resolve the problem resembled a surrender far more than a compromise. He’s no Henry Clay.
Finally, while Clinton earned the respect of his party’s left wing by way of his confrontations with Newt Gingrich, Obama has garnered only contempt from his colleagues for his craven inability to prevail despite holding a formidable array of cards in his hand.
That House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) polled lower than Obama during the debt talks is scant comfort. Boehner is not running for president. When Clinton prevailed in 1996, it was against Bob Dole, who was not only the Senate majority leader but also his opponent for reelection. Clinton and Dole were, indeed, locked in a zero-sum game. But it does Obama no good if Boehner’s ratings drop.
Now Obama will have a devil of a time replenishing the enthusiasm that led his march to victory in 2008. He will instead meet with the same tepid support from his base that doomed Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. His voters are discovering that there is no “there” there.