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.