I don’t see how the president’s position and popularity can survive the oil spill. This is his third political disaster in his first 18 months in office. And they were all, as they say, unforced errors, meaning they were shaped by the president’s political judgment and instincts.
There was the tearing and unnecessary war over his health-care proposal and its cost. There was his day-to-day indifference to the views and hopes of the majority of voters regarding illegal immigration. And now the past almost 40 days of dodging and dithering in the face of an environmental calamity. I don’t see how you politically survive this.
The president, in my view, continues to govern in a way that suggests he is chronically detached from the central and immediate concerns of his countrymen. This is a terrible thing to see in a political figure, and a startling thing in one who won so handily and shrewdly in 2008. But he has not, almost from the day he was inaugurated, been in sync with the center. The heart of the country is thinking each day about A, B and C, and he is thinking about X, Y and Z. They’re in one reality, he’s in another. ~Peggy Noonan
Of these three things, only the handling of the oil spill has the potential to be as much of a political disaster for the administration as it has been an environmental disaster for the Gulf coast. Oddly enough, Obama is in this position partly because he had tacked towards the center on offshore drilling as part of a bid to win Republican support for climate change legislation. Had he been adamantly against offshore drilling all along, he might have been called an environmentalist ideologue and “out of touch” with the blessed center, but he could point to the oil spill as an example of why he took that view. Were he actually the left-winger Republicans like to pretend that he is, his response to a major oil spill by a multinational corporation would have been much more aggressive and angrier, but that isn’t who he is. Unfortunately, he is all too often “in sync with the center,” by which I mean the Washington centrists’ center, and that means accommodation and support for entrenched and powerful interests. It is largely because of his instinct to accommodate that he finds himself in this mess. The latest Gallup poll finds that 53% regard Obama’s handling of the spill as poor or very poor, so there’s no question that most of the public does not approve. Even so, his average approval rating remains 47%, which is more or less where it has been during the three “disasters” Noonan thinks no one can survive.
It’s also probably true that his opposition is uniquely unsuited to take advantage of the administration’s vulnerability. The party of “drill here, drill now” is a strange one to lead the fight against an oil corporation and an administration perceived as being too deferential and easy on said corporation. Republicans have spent the last two years trying to be more pro-drilling than the oil companies and more hostile to financial regulation than the financial industry, but they also want to complain about administration collusion with corporate and financial interests. They can’t quite get their demagoguing script worked out, and so one day it is an attack on Obama the corporatist, which has the virtue of being the most accurate, and then the next it is an attack on Obama the radical leftist who hates capitalism. Amid all the contradictory and confusing messages, Obama seems to escape the attacks with minimal damage.
If the health care bill and the recent immigration debate have been political disasters for Obama, it doesn’t show. Obama’s opposition to the new law in Arizona was a mistake in that it did put him at odds with the majority, but it hardly counts as a disaster until he makes the real blunder of trying to get an immigration bill passed ths year. When seen from outside the camp of its opponents, the passage of the health care bill was one of the largest victories any President of either party has had in decades. Aside from a slight drop in polling numbers for Obama and the Democrats between January and April, the political damage does not appear very great. Noonan is making the mistake of confusing things Obama has done that she dislikes with political disasters.
There are other things that Noonan claims in this column that are misleading. For example, she writes:
The American people have spent at least two years worrying that high government spending would, in the end, undo the republic.
It is hard to know what it means that the people have been worrying about this. They haven’t changed their views on government spending. Majorities consistently want more spending in almost every area, except for dreaded foreign aid, and large pluralities oppose any spending cuts in almost every area. It would be excellent if the American people had as much republican zeal in the form of deficit hawkishness as Noonan thinks, but it isn’t the case.
Noonan also declares the oil spill a disaster also for Obama’s political assumptions. This is the part that makes the least sense:
His philosophy is that it is appropriate for the federal government to occupy a more burly, significant and powerful place in America—confronting its problems of need, injustice, inequality. But in a way, and inevitably, this is always boiled down to a promise: “Trust us here in Washington, we will prove worthy of your trust.” Then the oil spill came and government could not do the job, could not meet need, in fact seemed faraway and incapable: “We pay so much for the government and it can’t cap an undersea oil well!”
The trouble is that when we look at what Obama has actually done, or rather failed to do, we do not see someone pursuing a philosophy that the federal government should “occupy a more burly, significant and powerful place in America.” The actual complaint against the administration is that it has been too hands off, too uninvolved, too passive! Americans have conditioned themselves to think of Presidents as problem-solvers who are supposed to take an active role in addressing any and every major event that occurs, and conservatives no less than liberals have invested the Presidency with a moral and national leadership role quite apart from constitutional responsibilities.
If a President does not actively “take charge” and is not seen as “doing something,” he is ridiculed as weak and ineffective, when according to any vision of a less activist, less interventionist, less intrusive government the President would not involve himself closely in most events similar to this oil spill. It is a bit more absurd in the conservatives’ case. They are horrified by the tyranny of the individual mandate, but most otherwise seem content to demand the firm smack of a strong executive and the protections of an omnicompetent managerial state. Having mocked Obama’s more enthusiastic supporters for wanting him to be a savior of sorts, some Republicans seem genuinely annoyed that he has not been able to work miracles.
P.S. It didn’t occur to me until just now, but I realized that Noonan’s column reminds me very much of the Saturday Night Live character who keeps demanding that he wants someone to “fix it!”