President Obama is staying up around the fifty percent approval mark as two-thirds of the people feel the country is headed in the wrong direction. Big spending liberals were sent packing in Virginia and New Jersey, but voters attributed none of it as fall out from the President. Remaking health care in the leftist image was until recently a forgone conclusion in the House, but the bill barely squeaked through this past week.
The Left concludes from this that the public actually loves government-orchestrated health care, new energy taxes, a foreign policy structured around apologies, and, above all, unbridled spending. The proof, they say, is that Obama is still popular, and surely his popularity would have suffered if voters did not want the proposed Big Government. Only lies by Republicans and Fox News, they claim, have temporarily interfered with voters what they really want.
The problem with that explanation is that the voters are getting the truth about the programs, and they are not much liking it. That brings us back to the conundrum: why is Obama remaining so popular in the face of rapidly growing dissatisfaction with his policies?
Obama remains popular because many middle-ground voters have not associated him with the implementation of the policies of his administration. The committed Left and the committed right have no trouble associating Obama with Obama policies, but few in either of those camps have changed their opinions about Obama since he was elected. The middle ground perceives health care as a product of Congress, not the President. The President wants only wonderful things: lower health costs, universal coverage, preserving what you now have, and no increase in deficits. He is firm on all those things, having asserted them in 112 speeches on the subject.
He does not talk about $500 billion in Medicare cuts and other details that might offend. It’s the job of Congress to make magic happen after he casts the spell. The same strategy applies to cap-and-trade, the Stimulus Bill, restructuring the financial system, figuring out where to put GITMO inmates, and so forth. The upside of not providing leadership is avoiding the responsibility that goes with it.
Congress was run by Democrats for the last two years of the Bush administration, yet Democrats have had success holding Bush responsible for everything. A poll showed that 57% of the people who voted for Obama believed that Republicans controlled Congress. Now with a Democrat as president, the Democratic-controlled Congress is held at fault rather than the President. That’s an amazing feat of politics.
It flows from Obama’s style and enormous skill as a politician. His campaign was based upon “hope and change,” without the specifics. The specifics get politicians in trouble. That strategy worked to get the Stimulus Bill passed. Insofar as there was agreement on the bill, in was on the generic premise that “government must act.” It was not sold on the premise that ten months later only 14% of the money would have been pumped into the economy.
Can Obama continue with generic messages that express goals rather than policies? It is possible. Imagine a scenario in which Republicans do well in the elections next year. Obama is already doing well blaming Republicans for his policy failures, despite Republicans having little power in Congress. Obama can step that up by posing the situation as his generic goodness being blocked by horrible detail-obsessed Republicans.
That might not happen. Another scenario is that voters gradually feel the lack of leadership from the President, and start holding him accountable for failed policies. It hasn’t happened so far, but perhaps it is just a matter of time.
We may be seeing a basic flaw in democracy. The best candidates may be the ones who are best at running for office, and perfection as a candidate comes at the expense of the ability to govern once elected.