CoverStory

Sinking fast

Barack Obama’s political decline reflects his failure to adapt to changing circumstances

By Mary Kissel

President Obama’s second term is careening wildly off course, and everyone seems to know it but the President — especially when it comes to his imploding, eponymous health-care program Obamacare. The website rollout was a disaster, five million people have been dropped from their insurance plans, premium and deductible costs have spiked, and doctor networks are shrinking dramatically. The President’s approval ratings have dropped below 40 per cent. The message from the White House, to date? Nothing to see here, folks, move along. Obamacare is here to stay, and you’ll learn to like it. 

Autocrats may use such tactics, but American presidents generally don’t. Why would President Obama pursue such a course? Why would he not step up and lead? Acknowledge his mistakes, correct them, bargain with his political opponents, mend the problems, move on? These are questions that Americans on both sides of politics are starting to ponder, and they raise worrying conclusions about this president’s character and his intellectual capabilities (or lack thereof). 

One thing is certain: Barack Obama is not a man who has ever lacked self-confidence. “I’m LeBron, baby. I can play on this level. I got some game,” he quipped to a Chicago Tribune reporter in 2004. At his Democratic primary nomination victory speech, 2008: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” In a 2011 CBS interview, “I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president, with the possible exception of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln.” Better than Truman, who ended the Second World War? Ike, who secured the peace? Reagan, who felled the Soviet empire? 

Yes, every president has to have a healthy ego just to run for the nation’s highest office. And Obama was constantly told by an adoring media that he was the best, a man of historical import, and the apotheosis of liberal aspirations. (To be the first black man to win the Oval Office is admittedly no mean feat.) Still, his bravado is unparalleled, and importantly, unchallenged. He has no senior advisor, no mentor, no pastor, and no father figure. He doesn’t think he needs them. Nixon had canny Kissinger; Clinton, wonky Gore; Bush, experienced Cheney. Barack Obama chose… Joe Biden. For a reason.

President Obama is also a product of the Ivy League ivory tower, a man devoted to big-government, far left-of-centre liberalism. He rarely debates his ideas with intellectually capable opponents, and he’s quick to anger when he does. When Representative Paul Ryan dared present an alternative to the President’s budget, Obama berated him at a public event, giving the Wisconsin conservative no chance to respond. When House leaders trekked to the White House to negotiate a compromise, he cut them off and lectured them. “We talked for 30 seconds, then he talked for 15 minutes,” a person in the room related to me. When an Illinois farmer worried about coming agriculture regulations at a town hall meeting, the President patronised him and told him “don’t always believe what you hear.” Bill Clinton at least pretended to feel his political opponents’ pain. Obama doesn’t even try. 

The President’s utter confidence in himself may explain why he ploughed trillions of dollars into the economy for years, despite dismal results. The “new normal” for economic growth is a measly 2 per cent. The coalition that elected the President (African Americans, single women, and young voters) has suffered the most, with jobless rates soaring into the double digits. Inflation-adjusted incomes are falling, which is unprecedented in an economic recovery. Labour participation rates are at their lowest levels since the late 1970s, as many Americans have simply given up looking for a job. At least President Bush manned up when he realised he was failing in Iraq and ordered the surge in early 2007, against his advisors’ wishes. President Obama has never shown the interest nor capacity to change course like that. 

Nor does he seem to be much in charge of the bureaucracy, which has produced a barrage of scandals that make Watergate look like a high-school prank. The IRS targeted hundreds of conservative groups in key swing states before the 2012 election (quite plausibly impacting the outcome) and the bureaucracy collectively shrugged. The FBI declined to investigate. An ambassador and three other Americans were murdered in a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, on the 9/11 anniversary. No troops were sent in to help. The killers weren’t apprehended, even though reporters have managed to find and interview them. In Wisconsin, a prosecutor issued secret subpoenas to intimidate political supporters of the Republican governor, Scott Walker, in an election year. A judge recently threw out the subpoenas, but there was no outrage from the constitutional scholar in the White House. 

The common thread — that so long as public servants abuse conservatives, it’s not a problem, and will be excused by the man in the White House, or even tacitly encouraged — makes the President look at best like an absent leader, and at worst, a vindictive one. IRS scandal? Move on, America. Benghazi? It’s a tragedy but what’s the point of rehashing past mistakes? Wisconsin? Where’s that? But if there’s a hint of targeting liberals — think Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal, where there’s no evidence that the governor was aware of or ordered political retribution by closing traffic lanes — and suddenly it’s game on for the media and Democratic operatives. And the President is MIA. That record makes it hard for Republicans to trust the White House, which in turn makes it hard to clinch big, second-term reforms like Ronald Reagan did with Tip O’Neill on tax reform, and Clinton, with Newt Gingrich on budget matters. 

But President Obama has made bold moves in foreign policy, you say? Yes, mostly to withdraw American leadership from the world. The President pulled all US troops from Iraq, leaving that country vulnerable to Iran’s advances — and al Qaeda. He mulled punishing Syria’s Bashar al Assad after the dictator used chemical weapons, then backed down and did a deal to keep him in power. He promised to surge troops in Afghanistan, while simultaneously setting a date to draw down the American presence there. He ignored Iran’s warmongering and allowed the mullahs to keep their nuclear capabilities. In Asia, he let China claim Japanese territory with no adverse consequences. “Leading from behind” is now the catchphrase associated with the world’s most powerful military. Is it any wonder that America’s closest allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel, are publicly worrying about a wholesale American retreat? 

 

But perhaps all isn’t lost. Perhaps the Obamacare debacle is a big enough disaster to convince even this megalomaniacal president to change tack and lead. It is, after all, the law to which his legacy is inextricably yoked, and it’s an embarrassment. The administration had three years to stitch together government IT systems and couldn’t get the website to work for months after the official launch date. There are no security systems to protect the confidential data. The Spanish-language site looks like something translated by a semi-literate teenager. When users finally sign up, the site’s back-end churns out inaccurate data that’s then shipped to insurers to sort through. 

And Obamacare’s problems run far deeper than just the computer code. The bare-bones, initial enrolment numbers released by the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the law, suggests that there won’t be enough healthy people enroled to make the insurance financially viable. Actuaries are warning about a rate “death spiral.” More people have been dropped from insurance plans than are gaining coverage. Meanwhile, Medicaid rolls are expanding rapidly, putting pressure on an already tottering health-care safety net. The problems will only get worse, not better. 

This is not the scenario that the President promised to the American public — not by a country mile. At a speech to the American Medical Association in 2009 he said: “No matter how we reform healthcare, we will keep this promise to the American people: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor. Period. If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan. Period. No one will take it away. No matter what.” Obamacare was going to “reduce health care costs” and fix a “broken” system. Those phrases were repeated ad infinitum not just by the President, but by his lieutenants, health-care companies eager to snare patients forced into their plans, grassroots Democratic activist groups, and a sympathetic media. 

Maybe Obama really believed these promises, or didn’t understand the economics underlying them, or maybe he just chose to ignore evidence to the contrary. His aides knew all along they were selling the public at best a misleading story and at worst, a lie. As one official told the Wall Street Journal (anonymously, of course), “if you like your plan, you can probably keep it” isn’t a “saleable” point. And: “You try to talk about health care in broad, intelligible points that cut through, and you inevitably lose some accuracy when you do that.” That’s one way to put it. 

The President has reverted to form and tried to stall and obfuscate, calling the botched rollout a “glitch.” “I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads or threatening to shut down the company if they didn’t. That’s not how we do things in America,” he mused — the implication being that his political opponents, the Republicans, are to blame. (None of them voted for the law.) From a September 2013 rally in Maryland: “But despite all the obstacles, the Affordable Care Act passed both houses of Congress. I signed it into law. The Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. Republicans in Congress have now voted more than 40 times to undermine or repeal it. Their candidate for president ran on a platform to repeal it. And at every step, they’ve been unsuccessful.” I won! It’s about me! The law stands, even if it’s a horrible law! 

But Americans aren’t buying this pitch, no matter how many times the President delivers it. Only 38 per cent of Americans approve of Obamacare, according to Gallup, and the law has never enjoyed majority support. Only 22 per cent of Americans believe Obamacare will make their health better in the long run, and that number has hardly wavered over the past year. The President’s approval ratings have fallen to 41 per cent, down from 54 per cent a year ago, and some polls put that number below 40 per cent. For a president who likes to be loved, it’s painful to poll at these kinds of levels — and more painful still that Congressional Democrats up for re-election this year are starting to shun him. (North Carolina’s Kay Hagan won’t even appear in public with the President.) 

And that ultimately may be what convinces Barack Obama to pull a Clinton and compromise with his opponents. An immigration deal is starting to take shape in Congress, and it’s in both parties’ interests to come to an agreement. Democrats want to fulfil campaign promises to legalise 11 million people already in the country illegally; Republicans want to capture a bigger portion of the growing Hispanic vote. So too do both sides want to fix the health-care system that’s been roiled by Obamacare. Democrats want to neutralise the issue for this year’s mid-term election, and Republicans want to look like a responsible party that’s able to bargain and competent enough to be trusted to govern. 

Whatever happens will ultimately depend on Barack Obama, and whether or not he has the intellectual capacity to admit his mistakes, learn from them, and use what he learns to strike deals with his ideological opponents. If he doesn’t, he risks becoming the one thing he most abhors: a president of little historical import, or insights, or even worse, a leader who leaves America worse off than when he first took office. Let’s hope for America’s sake, and the world’s, that he figures that out, and fast.