Is Obama facing a key moment of truth of his young presidency? Two writers from opposite sides of the political spectrum both think so. Both Pat Buchanan and Doris Kearns Goodwin reached back into examples of presidencies they both served to illustrate the challenge that Barack faces as we head into August.
Buchanan correlates the situation to early on in the Nixon Administration. He (Nixon) had won applause for a variety of initiatives and a successful global tour. But when he came home the trouble was brewing. Anti-Vietnam sentiment was on the rise and the opposition that would eventually break Nixon on the rocks of Watergate was coalescing. Buchanan further notes that Nixon’s approval was a full ten points higher when this whole process started than Barack’s is right now.
For the most part, I think PJB has accurately assessed the Obama dilemma. Public opposition to health care reform is rising and most news stories deal with problems the legislation is having. The criticisms of the Blue Dogs is getting more press attention than the criticism of the Republicans. And for good reason—it’s the Blue Dogs, not the GOP, who hold the balance of power in Washington right now. The public is not going to blame an impotent Republican minority if health care fails or if an unpopular bill passes. That 60th vote in the Senate the Dems picked up when Al Franken was seated in Minnesota is most definitely a double-edged sword and means a huge increase in accountability.
Buchanan goes on to note political problems arising with the cap-and-trade bill, plus looming foreign policy crises in Afghanistan and Iran. The latter in particular, represent a big problem for Obama. When it comes to his problems on the homefront, I’d bet he can end up talking his way out of it. His core supporters are not the sharpest tacks in the room, and can be kept in line with syrupy speeches. And the swing vote in American politics is apathetic independents who can be similarly wooed with the smooth presentational style that is Obama’s hallmark (to be fair, as it was for Reagan too, even if I think the Gipper had more underneath the surface than Barack does).
But Obama cannot talk his way out of foreign policy crises. An appearance on Oprah will not make the Afghan regime ready to defend itself. Chatting with Fox’s Joe Buck during the All-Star game won’t bring Iran to the table. Obama has done very well in appearances like the one with Buck, where he looks and genuinely seems to be a normal, friendly guy who enjoys a ballgame like the rest of us. But eventually he’s going to have to stand up and really be a president.
This brings us to the short comments from Goodwin, a one-time speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson. Goodwin believes Obama is approaching his “Johnson moment” where he’s going to have to start arm wrestling Congress. Here again, we see a challenge that Obama has not faced before and we have no idea if he’s up to the challenge. Goodwin wrote that Johnson believed it was important to have the legislative branch with you from the beginning. If that’s the measurement, than Obama is off to a good start. He has all but let the relevant Democratic committees write the various proposals, weighing in only occasionally.
The challenge Barack has here isn’t quite as deep as what he faces on the international stage. His public popularity and ability to speak can be a key factor for him as he tries to get pressure built on recalcitrant Congressmen and Senators. But it will still require more depth than what he’s shown in any previous appearances. The president himself may well be very sharp (I really don’t know), but the reality is that he has consistently chosen clichéd rhetoric in public over substance and depth. That served him well in his campaign when he only needed to reassure a mostly sympathetic public that it was okay to put him in office. He will have to find some way to communicate his more substantive thoughts now that he’s facing an electorate more skeptical of his actual proposals. He lacks LBJ’s years of experience in the Senate, where the president Goodwin served knew the ins and outs of Congress like the back of his hand. Obama will ultimately have to rely on public pressure to force his will.
I would look back to the early 1980s as where Obama needs to start. Ronald Reagan went over the heads of Congress and got voters to pressure their elected officials into enacting his tax and budget programs. Reagan didn’t bog voters down with mounds of detail that only a policy wonk could understand, but he did make use of charts and anecdotal examples that got his points through in clear and understandable ways. Obama will have to find the same sort of balance.
It all adds up to a late summer and early fall of challenge for the new president. Like the baseball team on the South Side of Chicago that he roots zealously for, he’s in a dead-even fight with a chance to win. Now’s the time we’ll find out if he has the stuff to still be alive in October.