Every president is subject to forces beyond his control. If unemployment were at 5 percent, President Obama would be doing fine. If the Christmas bomber's pants had exploded successfully, Obama would be in far worse shape.
Obama's progressive base thinks his problems stem from not being ambitious enough. Conservatives argue the opposite. And what about the independents who've been running from Obama like residents of Tokyo fleeing Godzilla? Everyone has a theory, but one thing is clear: People think Obama took his eye off the ball.
If there's a single event for which Obama himself is to blame, one decision that explains his predicament, it is his mishandling of the stimulus at the dawn of his administration. Put aside the debate over whether it has "worked," and forget the White House's absurd trick of talking about jobs "saved or created" (for the record, I save or create 500 push-ups every morning). Obama made a rookie mistake outsourcing his first major domestic policy decision to Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and the Old Bulls of the Democratic Party, and that blunder has done lasting damage to his presidency.
This time last year, there was a wide and deep consensus that the country needed a second stimulus (President Bush's first one of $152 billion was thrown down the memory hole). Many Republicans, licking their wounds after successive drubbings at the polls and fearful that prophecies of a generation "in the wilderness" might prove true, were either eager to side with the popular new president or were at least resigned to the fact that they might have to, particularly if Obama was going to honor his commitments to bipartisan governance. According to Gallup, Obama started with an initial approval rate of near 70 percent (a whopping 83 percent of Americans approved his transition efforts). When the public is divided 70-30 in favor of something, most politicians like to be on the side of 70.
Politically, the stimulus offered the president a chance to break the back of the GOP, while at the same time fulfilling his promise to transcend the gridlock and partisanship of recent years. If he had offered something close to half-a-loaf to Republicans at the time, he wouldn't have won total GOP support, but he would have gotten a sizable chunk of their votes -- enough for the White House to claim a real bipartisan victory and force a Republican buy-in to Obama's agenda. The climate going into the 2010 elections might look very different if the Republican Party had an ownership stake in Obama's economic policies.
But Obama went a different way (unlike Bush, who started his presidency with the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act). He outsourced the entire $787 billion stimulus (now estimated to cost $862 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office), to House and Senate Democrats, who had a "40-year wish list" -- in the words of The Wall Street Journal -- and there were no Republican ideas in it. As Pelosi said at the time, "We won the election. We wrote the bill." Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told me (as he headed to the GOP's retreat in Baltimore last weekend) it was clear from the outset that Democrats "made a decision from the get-go. Freeze out Republicans."
Democrats contend that Republicans refused to work with them on the stimulus but that they incorporated "Republican ideas" in the form of "tax cuts." The facts don't support this. Pelosi introduced the stimulus bill the night before Obama even met with Republicans to solicit their ideas. When the GOP presented Obama a list of proposals, they never left the paper they were printed on. Obama embraced the Democratic bill, which had no Republican input.
Nor did it have "Republican ideas" in it. The bulk of the "tax cuts" -- touted by Obama in the State of the Union last week -- were actually micromanaging, Keynesian "rebates," or what Ryan calls "spending through the tax code." Regardless, if you want hot dogs on the menu and the cook serves tofurkey soydogs, it's really not right to say the chef incorporated your ideas.
Wrong or not, the Republicans were sufficiently appalled by both the substance and the process of the stimulus that they united against it, as did the public. The pork, fake ZIP codes and spending on items never intended to stimulate the economy fueled the migration of independents from Obama and set the tone for his first year: Bipartisanship was out; phony partisan spin was in. As a result, the GOP learned that opposing Obama was not a losing proposition, but potentially a path back to power. Obviously, Obama would be in better shape if the Republicans hadn't learned that lesson so early.
A year ago, the GOP was more irritant than opposition. Now it is a major force, completely outside his control.