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Sep 6th, 2009

The Change Agenda At a Crossroads

From health care to wars to public anxiety, Obama’s strength as a leader is tested

Image: Barack Obama
President Barack Obama walks down the Colonnade of the White House to deliver remarks on the preparation and response efforts surrounding the H1N1 flu virus on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2009. (Photo credit: Michael Reynolds / EPA file)

By Scott Wilson
The Washington Post
September 6, 2009


As President Obama’s senior advisers gathered at Blair House at the end of July for a two-day review of their first six months in office, what was meant to be a breath-catching moment of reflection was colored by a sense of unease.

To a sleep-deprived White House staff, the achievements since taking office that chilly morning of Jan. 20 seemed self-evident. The agenda of necessity they had carried out to stabilize the economy was rapidly making room for Obama’s agenda of choice: changing the way Americans receive health care, generate and consume energy, and learn in public school classrooms.

But opinion polls showed support for the president and his policies dipping sharply, and the disheartening numbers had shaken the confidence of some of Obama’s staff. […]

The slide has only quickened. Emerging from an angry August recess, Obama is weakened politically and faces growing concerns, particularly from within his own party, over his strength as a leader. […]

Obama built his successful candidacy and presidency around a leadership style that seeks consensus. But he is entering a period when consensus may not be possible on the issues most important to his administration and party. Whatever approach he takes is likely to upset some of his most ardent supporters, many of whom are unwilling to compromise at a time when Democrats control the White House and Congress. […]

Obama has brought change over his first seven months in office, often through direct government intervention, to areas as different as the conflict in Iraq and the American auto industry.

The economy is improving and bailed-out banks are paying back the money with interest. A smooth Supreme Court selection has brought the first Hispanic justice, Sonia Sotomayor, to the highest bench. America’s standing in the world is improving, according to many polls, after Obama’s widely broadcast address to the Muslim world, prohibition of torture in interrogation and decision to close the military brig at Guantanamo Bay.

But Obama’s spending plans that will require $9 trillion in new borrowing over the next decade have alarmed conservatives in his own party, and he could not head off an investigation by his own Justice Department into the Bush administration’s interrogation policies that he had made clear he did not want. Unemployment is still rising. His decision to expand the war in Afghanistan, deploying thousands of additional U.S. troops, has not come with a clear plan for how to leave.

Even though polls show fallen approval ratings, Obama remains more personally popular than his policies. His senior advisers say his leadership strength derives from the ability to remain calm in the maelstrom of 24-hour news cycles, a mark of his once-long-shot 2008 campaign. The anti-government anger that has risen from a thousand town hall meetings over the recess is now testing Obama’s celebrated communication skills and a political style one confidante described as “unsentimental.” […]

Political Capital

Activist presidents always have spent political capital pursuing their goals, and Obama has proved the same. […]

Before Obama’s inauguration, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, set out the administration’s goals for the year.

Major reform targets, particularly in the health care and energy sectors, would not be staged one after the other, as in past administrations, but pursued simultaneously at a time when the private sector had been battered by the financial crisis.

Emanuel’s logic was a warrior’s — that is, the side with the initiative succeeds. Since then, the administration has pushed through a dozen pieces of legislation with little obvious public resistance, including measures to expand health insurance for children, ensure pay equity, regulate tobacco and protect consumers from credit card companies. […]

The breadth of Obama’s reform plans, coming after the expensive and interventionist economic rescue measures, is also riling conservatives […]

Smaller than it was a decade ago, the Republican Party has shed many moderates, leaving few who are willing to work even with a Democratic president who has promised less partisan governing.

“At the root of his difficulties is a misperception on his part of the root cause of the problem,” said Obama critic Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University professor and presidential scholar. “He sees the problem as Washington. Fine. But the basic cause is the evolution of the Republican Party.”

Like Lyndon B. Johnson, Obama is pursuing a broad reform agenda with large Democratic majorities in Congress.

But Wilentz said it is harder for Obama to work across party lines without the collection of moderate Republican senators present in Johnson’s time. […]

“You can have an out-of-touch Republican Party, but in Washington that does great damage to reform efforts,” Wilentz said. “He has done what he can to put the country on a new track, and in doing so he can’t help but disappoint some of his supporters. But it’s not a fan club.”

Extreme Street Theater

At a late August town hall forum in Spring Valley, Calif., Robert Billburg, a 49-year-old Air Force veteran and Red Cross worker, watched a scene familiar to YouTube fans this summer.

Police conducted body searches at the gymnasium door. Signs depicted Obama as the Joker; others called him a Nazi. […]

“I think the best description of him is a centrist technocrat,” Billburg said of Obama, whom he supported. “So those on the extremes are going to be very disappointed.”

Increasingly, they are.

During the campaign, Obama pledged to run an administration less concerned by partisanship than by ensuring effective government.

But from his first weeks in office, as his administration worked to secure a stimulus bill the president believed was essential to preventing a broader economic collapse, winning Republican support has been hard. Even the pursuit of it is now viewed by his Democratic base as a sign of weakness. […]

Holding Onto ‘No Drama’

Governing requires the ability to appeal to Congress and the electorate simultaneously, and Obama is attempting to do that with the patience and unflappability that were the hallmarks of his “no drama” campaign. […]

Rickey R. Hendon, a Democratic state senator in Illinois who served with Obama in the legislature there, said the president has always been “conciliatory, a consensus seeker” and that “hasn’t changed in Washington, much to his detriment, I believe.” […]


Related reports

For Obama and Democrats, Colorado becomes less welcoming (Washington Post, Sept. 6, 2009) — Today, the energy that powered Obama to victory has begun to dissipate. Some of his supporters remain on the sidelines; others are, if not disillusioned, questioning what has happened to his presidency. As they look toward 2010, Democrats are nervous. … Full story

Cook Political Report: ‘A dangerous slide’ for Democrats (Politico, Sept. 3, 2009) — “Even if Obama and Democrats are just as popular next November as they were last November, they might stand to lose five to ten seats in the House based on the altered composition of the midterm electorate alone. The latest public opinion diagnostics, however, point to a dangerous slide. As voters’ views of Obama and Democrats’ handling of health care has dimmed, their inclination to elect Democrats to Congress has waned.” … “Right now, we’re looking at a wave cycle, but the question is will it be a small wave or a major wave.” … Full story

Charlie Cook: Dem situation has ‘slipped completely out of control’ (Politico, Aug. 9, 2009) — “Today, The Cook Political Reports Congressional election model, based on individual races, is pointing toward a net Democratic loss of between six and 12 seats, but our sense, factoring in macro-political dynamics is that this is far too low.” … Full story


Related reports on this site

Democratic Reality Check in 2010 (Aug. 22, 2009)

Barack Obama’s Leadership Style (Feb. 21, 2009)

Sarah Moore and Angela Rodgers in the Capitol rotunda.

Barack Obama: A Question of Toughness (Nov. 2, 2008)

Click image for larger view
Obama Leadership Style poster
“The Personality Profile of President Barack Obama: Leadership Implications.” Research poster presented by Sarah Moore, 44th annual Minnesota Undergraduate Psychology Conference, April 18, 2009, College of Saint Benedict, St. Joseph, Minn. (Supervisor: Aubrey Immelman, Ph.D.)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago Today — September 6, 2008

On the Campaign Trail: Day 54

Old Creamery Arts & Crafts Show in Rice, Minn.

One year ago today, on the 54th day of my campaign against U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann for the Republican nomination as House of Representatives candidate in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, volunteers handed out campaign literature in downtown Forest Lake (Washington County) and at the Old Creamery Arts & Crafts Show in Rice (Benton County), while I had a meet-and-greet at the Saint John’s University football season opener in Collegeville.


As noted before, media organizations have begun publishing their voter guides for the 2008 election. Today, I feature information from the WCCO-TV / WCCO-Radio Voters’ Guide.

Biographical Information
Address: 99 – 8th St. N.
City/Town: Sartell, MN 56377
Campaign phone: (320) 240-6828
Web site:
Age: 52
Marital status: Married
Family: Four children (13, 11, 9, 2)
Religion: Catholic
Education/Degrees: Ph.D., Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (with coursework at the University of Wyoming and the University of Maine), 1991
Military experience: Infantry paratrooper and military psychology officer, South African Defense Force (Cold War era counterinsurgency Border War); U.S. military consultant (nuclear counterproliferation, threat assessment, deterrence)
Experience: Volunteered in Patty Wetterling’s congressional campaign (motivated by a shared interest in public safety issues)
Community involvement: Sartell Community Education and Summer Recreation program; Stearns County Skywarn
Endorsements: None sought
Platform: U.S. national security


I’m a traditional fiscal conservative who believes in low, equitable, and fair taxation to fund essential government functions; fiscal restraint; and a balanced budget. We have no business spending hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars toppling foreign dictators that pose no national security threat to the United States and then rebuilding their countries on the back of the U.S. taxpayer while our own vital needs remain unmet.

Iraq and the War on Terrorism

My signature issue is U.S. national security. My main concern (and chief reason for running) is the unintended consequences of the ill-conceived Iraq war. More than just exacting a huge cost in American blood, treasure, and loss of international stature, the invasion of Iraq has complicated the national security environment in the Middle East for the United States.

We should reduce our military footprint in Iraq in a manner that does not jeopardize recent security gains or enable Iran to exploit the disrupted balance of power created by the removal of its mortal enemy, Saddam Hussein. We need to shift more of our military assets and resources to counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and the Pakistani border region to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida. In addition, there needs to be greater recognition that terrorism cannot be defeated by military means alone. We must invest in force multipliers that enhance our prospects for victory in the war on terror.

How would you transform the U.S. energy policy?

I do not believe a freshman member of Congress has the capacity to transform U.S. energy policy. However, within the parameters of the energy policy formulated by the next president, I will support all reasonable means to increase supply, reduce demand, and develop energy alternatives that reduce our reliance on Middle Eastern oil.

Also, we should be mindful of the fact that the cost of energy to the U.S. consumer is influenced by our foreign, monetary, and fiscal policies. We should not be printing and borrowing money to fund unnecessary wars. Monetary and fiscal policies that increase the money supply and rely on deficit spending to pay for Iraq contribute to inflation and drive down the value of the dollar, which adds to the high price at the pump and the grocery checkout counter.



Michele Bachmann Blows Off St. Cloud Times Questionnaire

Her primary opponent, Immelman, filled out and returned the questionaire. Larry Schumacher at the St. Cloud Times has the story. …


Immelmann sounds like a true conservative…. his comments on fiscal policy make sense to me.
— Lady …

Oh, and I forgot to add, people in the northwest part of the district actually read the newspaper…. Bachmann’s campaign would have gotten some free press and a good compare/contrast layout if they had bothered to respond. The lack of response amazes me.
— Lady …

Expand domestic drilling and taking an aggressive approach to stop illegal immigration, I like that! Why won’t liberals take a common sense approach like this?
— …

He sounds like a more genuine small-government Republican than the incumbent. Congress, both under Republican and Democratic leadership, has never been honest about including the cost of the Iraq war in the budget. Hell, the last Republican led Congress under Dennis Hastert/Tom DeLay didn’t even do serious work on budget bills…. we ran on ‘continuing resolutions’. They were too busy with Terry Schiavo’s feeding tube and flag burning legislation.
— Anonymous …

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