Dartmouth welcomed the Gallup Poll's editor-in-chief, Frank Newport, to campus yesterday for the closing lecture in our "Leading Voices in Politics and Policy" series. His assessment of President Obama's re-election chances was negative:
Ten presidents have run for re-election since we’ve had modern polling, since Harry Truman. Seven of them have been successful, and three have been defeated. … in August before his election year his current 38 percent job approval rating is lower than any other president who was successfully re-elected. So history would say he’s in big trouble.
There has been a rash of commentary in recent weeks about what the Obama Administration could have done better. (Pick up one thread here and follow it back.) At a very general level, I think President Obama's biggest problem is that he wants to be the president who transcends politics. The president who wants to transcend politics will be a patsy for a Congress that doesn't.
At the level of policy, I don't see why Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and ARRA are not policies that he can run on. And remember that I am a conservative saying this. The first provides badly needed insurance reform and greater health care access to millions. It does so at too high a projected cost (primarily the design of the subsidies up to 400% of the poverty level), in my opinion, but it is a step forward. The second improves the framework for preventing financial crises and resolving them once they arrive. A lot will depend on whether the new regulatory structure actually raises capital requirements, clamps down on the most abusive practices, and puts a profligate financial institution out of its misery at its first opportunity. And the stimulus package was either too small if it was to be "timely, targeted, and temporary" or simply spent on the wrong things (consumption, not public investment). But the president can make the case that it provided assistance when assistance was needed. The economy may not improve rapidly enough for any of this to matter, but I reject any suggestion that he cannot make a credible case for re-election based on his policies.
At the level of tactics, President Obama's actions have been puzzling in some cases. He should never, as a matter of principle, allowed the Bush era tax cuts on the highest income groups to be renewed. He ran away from a fight, lost credibility with his base, and gained little in return. The critical part of engaging in that fight would have been to use the tools available to him through the political process to block the agenda of Congressional Republicans. I find it hard to believe that his fiscal policy changes he has enacted would have turned out materially worse for him if the Democrats did not have the majority in the Senate and the Constitution did not afford him a veto.
Sometimes, the way to transcend politics is to be extremely good at it.