The Liberal Uniter's Lost Role

Michael Gerson
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Posted: Aug 11, 2010 12:01 AM
The Liberal Uniter's Lost Role

WASHINGTON -- In 1980, Bill Clinton was defeated for re-election as Arkansas governor, making him the youngest ex-governor in America. According to one account, "Clinton sank into a deep funk. Wandering the streets of Little Rock, he'd stop to question strangers: 'Why do you think I lost?'"

Taking the advice of his campaign consultant Dick Morris, Clinton apologized for past mistakes and transitioned to the political center. He was re-elected governor two years later.

Clinton's most astute biographer, David Maraniss, says "the central theme of Clinton's life is the repetitive cycle of loss and recovery." Following his midterm electoral thumping in 1994, President Clinton, again advised by Morris, scaled back his ambitions, narrowly focused on middle-class tax cuts, education and the environment and gradually restored his political fortunes.

With President Obama likely facing a political setback in November, what can we expect his response to be?

It is hard to tell, because Obama has only the thinnest history of loss. In 2004, he represented the 13th District in the Illinois Senate. Within five years, he was president of the United States, Time's Person of the Year and a Noble laureate.

But Obama did lose one election. In 2000, he unwisely attempted to unseat Bobby Rush for a seat in the House of Representatives, receiving only 31 percent of the primary vote. A reporter who covered the race, Edward McClelland, says that Obama was "wooden and condescending," characterized by "braininess," "haughtiness" and a "sense of entitlement."

"He was the elitist Ivy League Democrat to top them all," McClelland wrote in an article for Salon. Obama's manner did not play very well on Chicago's South Side.

In McClelland's account, Obama did learn some lessons from failure. He became a more focused and collegial state legislator. But far from moderating his views, Obama developed a passion for expanded health coverage and strongly opposed the Iraq War. "I was impressed that he finally believed in something," wrote McClelland. "He was a big-government liberal, no weaseling about it." In addition, Obama grew "into the character he was born to play: the great uniter who can bring together old and young, black and white, Democrat and Republican."

It was always the most precarious of political balancing acts -- the liberal uniter. It worked brilliantly as a campaign theme. It has not survived the realities of governing. Obama's liberalism has provoked an intense national debate on the role and size of government, making him a deeply polarizing figure -- an impression, once created, that is hard to reverse.

In theory, a Republican House and a more evenly divided Senate could be an opportunity to reinvent the Obama presidency in Clinton-like fashion. Republicans are campaigning on vague commitments to lower spending and entitlement reform. Obama could call their bluff, making them complicit in the unpopular austerity measures he will need to take to restore economic confidence. This could be the American equivalent of Britain's coalition government -- a Democratic president and a Republican Congress sharing the political risks of spending reductions that neither could attempt alone. And Obama might find a more balanced Senate actually easier to work with. Like a pack mule, a Senate minority moves more readily when prodded gently. It stops when it is whipped.

There are two main obstacles to this prospect of post-election cooperation. First, a Republican House, if it arrives, will be dedicated to the repeal of Democratic health reform. A showdown could dominate the legislative agenda. Will the president and Republican leaders be able to reach an accommodation that undoes key elements of Obamacare while allowing Obama to save face?

The second obstacle is Obama himself. An effective redirection of his presidency would require Obama to abandon some cherished legislative objectives, pursue deficit reduction in ways that don't undermine economic growth (mainly through spending cuts, not tax increases) and begin serious entitlement reform.

Clinton was able to make similar pivots -- setting aside his ego to further his interests. But it is difficult to imagine Obama walking the streets of Washington, asking strangers, "Why do you think I lost?" Obama seems both more proud and more ideological than Clinton. Following electoral reverses in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts, Obama doubled down his ideological bets. His natural response is to bristle, not to bend.

An adjustment will not come easy. But the role that Obama was born to play -- the liberal uniter -- is no longer available.