Obama Piling Up Promises for Second Term
“And frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations. I think the stories you guys have been writing over the last 24 hours is probably pretty good evidence of that. I think we'll do better in 2013.”
-- President Obama in Seoul, South Korea chiding reporters for their coverage of an embarrassing incident in which he was overheard telling Russian President Dmitri Medvedev “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
President Obama owes a lot of his political problems to having run for office on vague promises of hope and change. After offering Americans a chance at something completely different, Obama has delivered large doses of the same old stuff.
But with his re-election in doubt, Obama has returned to his previous promissory pattern. Having freighted his presidency with massive expectations, he is now doing the same thing to the second term he is seeking.
Conservatives are aghast at what Obama told outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in a message for his boss/successor Vladimir Putin. Obama ratified the central campaign theme of his likely opponent, Mitt Romney, when he said that he would be in a better position to make concessions on American missile defense after the election.
And while the president certainly added ammo to Romney’s campaign pitch, which adds up to a warning about “Obama unrestrained,” the incumbent was also giving the pocket Putin a crude shorthand for the Obama 2012 message: it will work better next time.
Whether it was banning lobbyists from his administration, clamping down on Wall Street, stopping the downward spiral of partisanship in Washington or being the most transparent and ethical administration ever, Obama set a standard for himself that he has been either unwilling or unable to meet.
The gap between Obama the promise – a post-partisan healer who would govern from the sensible center – and Obama the product – a relentless partisan who responded to a midterm shellacking with indignation and new plumes of liberal policy – is at the heart of the president’s current political predicament.
Obama is in a tricky spot when it comes to touting the things he did in the two very active years of his term.
His largest accomplishment, the passage of a new federal health benefit for middle class Americans, remains unpopular because of its costs and certain provisions, particularly the new federal government power to compel individuals to purchase insurance.
Rather than talk about the fact that he achieved what no Democrat before could do – making the federal government responsible for the health of every American – Obama has been left to tout small-bore insurance regulations that could have passed with bipartisan support.
The president has chosen to focus on his handling of foreign affairs and his bailout, takeover and restructuring of automakers General Motors and Chrysler. As Vice President Joe Biden said: “bin Laden is dead and GM is alive.”
Sending the SEALs to go kill Usama bin Laden in Pakistan is undoubtedly the most popular thing Obama has done in office. People really hated that cat. And even if Iraq is headed for serious trouble as Iran and al Qaeda slip their tentacles around Baghdad, Americans are mostly happy that Obama oversaw the end of the U.S. mission there.
The GM and Chrysler bailouts are certainly popular when Biden, Obama’s campaign attack dog, goes out to rip up the red meat for partisan crowds, and opposition to the idea of Obama’s intervention has faded with time. But even that topic is fraught.
In order to explain why the bailouts were necessary, the campaign must try to remind voters constantly about the Panic of 2008 and its aftermath. That history lesson proves more difficult as Americans adjust to the new normal: anemic recovery that always mixes green shoots with dark clouds.
With voters disappointed in a product that didn’t match the political packaging and with a first-term record that doesn’t allow him to ask voters to stay the course, Obama has turned back to his original recipe for success: the big promise.
This is not new. The health law was engineered in such a way that Obama would be able to run on its future glories rather than a defense of its core elements. His position on gay marriage has been “evolving” for years, an implicit promise to advocates of same-sex marriage that the equality they seek is just a re-election away.
On taxes, spending, entitlements, Afghanistan and so much else, Obama is promising a better outcome in a second term. Part of this is necessary because his health law gummed up Congress for so long and then produced a midterm backlash that resulted in an impasse between the House and Senate.
But much of this is Obama reverting to type: the visionary politician who promises a process that will produce satisfying but unspecified results. Whenever anyone promises a blue-ribbon panel, a bipartisan working group or a team of experts that will solve the problem once and for all, they are traveling in this lane. And it is the lane in which Obama is always most comfortable: he sets the goals, others devise a means to achieve them and then he ratifies their work.
Obama blames the shortcomings of this method during his first term on the pressure to be re-elected, that political pressures damaged the process but that he can achieve his lofty goals once he is beyond the grubby pandering and fundraising required of politics.
Not only does this play into Romney’s election narrative, it has in it a bit of the reforming gambler seeking one more score before getting out of the game.
Obama is telling voters that he is going to do it wrong one more time – the fat-cat donors, lobbyists, blistering partisanship and canned talking points – so he can go straight in a second term.
Having seen him govern for four years, how likely are voters to believe that?
And Now, A Word From Charles
“What is important here is the fact is he is getting ready to go left on gay rights as he is on the Russian issues. Imagine how he will treat Israel after the election. The key point that Juan missed: [President Obama] said ‘last election,’ not next election, last election. I'm done and do what I want.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.