What a weird election. For all the hysteria, Barack Obama is still pretty much the most popular practicing politician in America, and his polls remain roughly where two-termers Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were during their first midterm elections. What’s more, a recent New York Times poll found that while Obama’s approval rating remains stuck around 43 percent among registered voters, about 60 percent of those polled say they are optimistic about the second half of his term and almost 70 percent predict the current downturn will be temporary. Rather amazingly, fewer than 10 percent blamed Obama and company for the economic problems, with the vast majority laying the blame where it belongs, on Wall Street and the Bush White House occupant. So why all the fuss?
Well, this being America, a great deal of easily exploitable ignorance is fueling the fire. Obama’s healthcare reform, his financial reform, the stimulus, the saving of the auto industry, etc. make these two years among the most consequential in the past half-century. Yet according to a recent poll published in Politico, only 23 percent of respondents thought Congress accomplished more than usual, and a New York Times/CBS News poll found that fewer than 10 percent of Americans knew they’d gotten a tax cut, while three times that number were under the misimpression that their tax bite had gotten bigger. And how is it, one might fairly ask, that a 47-42 plurality told Bloomberg pollsters that they support a repeal of the healthcare reform law, but three-quarters of the very same people support a ban on insurance companies denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, 67 percent support allowing children up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ policies and 73 percent want to keep more prescription drug benefits for those on Medicare? Um, these are the primary provisions of the law you people say you oppose. Hello?
It’s easy to fall back on clichés. Voters expect too much from our political system. (Mike DeGasperis, a laid-off steelworker from Martins Ferry, Ohio, told a New York Times reporter, "We heard everything was going to change, but there hasn’t been much change and the unemployment is still bad and the area we live in is still really depressed.") People have no sense of history. (Franklin Roosevelt was being pushed from the left by a genuine mass movement; Barack Obama is facing the opposite.)
Administration officials can console themselves with any number of such excuses. They did what was "right" instead of what was popular. As Obama told the Times‘s Peter Baker, "There is probably a perverse pride in my administration—and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top—that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular."
One can pick out the mistakes as one prefers. For instance, doing healthcare first, instead of financial reform, was clearly a miscalculation. But the biggest problem with this administration has been its refusal to recognize reality. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell recently told National Journal, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Nobody should be surprised. According to then-Republican Arlen Specter, before "the ink was dry on the oath of office," the Republican caucus was plotting how to defeat Obama in 2012. And Senator Jim DeMint famously promised healthcare reform could be used to "break" Obama from day one.
And yet Obama never admitted this. Faced with a media establishment that treats Fox News as, well, "news" and considers Newt Gingrich a genuine sage, Obama bought into the Beltway pretense that Republicans were acting in good faith and that it was those pesky liberals who needed to be kept in line. Liberals were "fucking retarded," said Rahm Emanuel, who apologized to retarded people but not to liberals. "They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality," added Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. And Obama himself joshed, at a $30,000 per person fundraiser at (yes) Rich Richman’s house in Greenwich, Connecticut, "Gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace and—[laughter]. I thought that was going to happen quicker." As if on cue, a Washington Post pundit said he was "proud of the president for…shaking the left by its shoulders, begging it to recognize how good they have it." Sun Tzu warned in The Art of War, "If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat." MSM pundits claim to be perplexed by Obama’s ability to "lose by winning." Sun Tzu wouldn’t be.
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My relationship with Ted Sorensen was largely social and professional, rather than personal, so I was much honored by his appearance on a panel discussion marking the launch of my book Why We’re Liberals in 2008, sponsored by the Brennan Center. I would note, however, particularly on the fiftieth anniversary of John Kennedy’s election to the presidency, that in 1952, when Kennedy had just made it to the Senate, both he and Henry "Scoop" Jackson courted 24-year-old Sorensen to be their principal aide. Jackson was considered to be the more liberal legislator at the time, and young, politically inclined lawyers did not come any more liberal than Sorensen. But after mulling over both offers, Sorensen picked Kennedy because, he explained in his memoir, Kennedy offered him a real opportunity "to serve." To those of us who admire Kennedy most of all for the inspirational rhetoric he offered the nation—as well as his remarkably cool head during the Cuban missile crisis—one has to be honest and admit that these gifts would likely have been in considerably shorter supply without Sorensen by his side. Ted was a liberal’s liberal. And we are a better, fairer and indeed richer nation for that service to his friend, his president… and to us.