How could such smart people do so many stupid things? That question, or variations on it, is being asked in Washington and around the country about the Obama administration.
The same people who directed the campaign that defeated Hillary Clinton and routed John McCain, a campaign that raised far more money and attracted far more volunteers than any before it, have within a year come up with a legislative program that is crashing in ruins and that, to judge from recent polls, has left the Democratic Party weaker than I have seen it in almost 50 years of closely following politics.
The 2008 campaign was an impressive achievement. So, in a negative way, is the 2009 legislative program that has left the Democrats in such woeful shape in 2010.
Some in Washington say that the problem is that Barack Obama has chosen to rely on his campaign staff rather than the wise old heads in Washington. But Obama and his team has had the benefit of advice from those wise old heads and from the smartest political strategist the Democratic Party has produced in the past half-century, Bill Clinton.
A truly wise Washington analyst, National Journal‘s Jonathan Rauch, says the problem is one-party government. Presidents lead better, he argues, when they are constrained by the need to get bipartisan support.
There’s something to that. Obama’s three predecessors all had bipartisan initiatives: the 1990 tax package for George Bush 41, NAFTA approval for Clinton, the 2001 education bill and the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit for George Bush 43. Obama has had no bipartisan initiatives of his own.
The fact that Democrats, from last July until last week, had a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate to go along with Nancy Pelosi’s strong majority in the House seems to have tempted Team Obama to go the all-Democratic route on health care, cap-and-trade and fiscal policy. But even strong temptations should sometimes be resisted.
I think the problem is more basic and helps to explain why the people who put together a successful campaign have not, so far at least, provided successful governance.
Obama campaigned as someone who would rise above partisan divisions. He first attracted national attention in 2004, when our politics was a kind of culture war, by stressing what red state America and blue state America had in common. He campaigned in a similar vein in 2007 and 2008.
But when he came to office in 2009, the cultural issues that had occupied so much of the political landscape for a dozen years had been eclipsed in importance by the financial crisis and the deepening recession.
So Obama was faced with a fundamental choice. He could either chart a bipartisan course in response to the economic emergency, or he could try to expand government to Western European magnitude as Democratic congressional leaders, elected for years in monopartisan districts, had long wished to do.
The former community organizer and Chicago pol chose the latter course.
To the surprise of many who watched previous presidents present specific administration policies to Congress, he allowed Democratic leaders to design the stimulus package they rushed into law in six weeks.
One-third of the money went to state and local governments — an obvious payoff to the public employee unions that contributed so much money to Democrats — and much of it went to permanently increase the baseline spending of discretionary programs, a longtime goal of Democratic congressional leaders.
Federal spending was raised from about 20 percent to about 24 percent of gross domestic product, putting the U.S. on a trajectory to double the national debt as a percentage of GDP in less than 10 years.
Team Obama overestimated the stimulative effect of the stimulus package and underestimated the strength of the spontaneous tea party movement that flared up in protest of this expansion of government.
They underestimated as well the opposition to expanding government control over health care and, through the cap-and-trade bill, to the energy sector. And the disgust over conspicuous vote-buying on health care — the Louisiana Purchase, the Cornhusker Kickback, the Labor Loophole.
Team Obama failed to realize they were no longer running in Chicago or in the Democratic primaries or facing an electorate fed up with Republicans. And, more important, they failed to realize that vastly expanding government goes deeply against the American grain — and against the basic appeal of their successful campaign.