Why underestimating Obama is risky

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer recently warned Republicans should “not underestimate President Barack Obama.” The conservative Krauthammer is no convert, and his piece was highly critical of the direction in which Obama is taking the country. He was critical of the restructuring of one-sixth of the US economy; he was dismissive of the near-trillion-dollar stimulus package; and he raised the spectre of major tax hikes to pay for all of it. All legitimate positions and classic conservative arguments. There was nothing new—except his warning.

Krauthammer readily acknowledges that Obama, like him or not, achieved an historic milestone in changing how healthcare will be delivered in the United States. He admits quite readily that it is already a transformational and significant presidency. He may not like it, and he may believe it to be detrimental to the country, but he recognizes that Obama has not been a reluctant leader over his first 18 months in office. When one hears the boisterous sounds from the ranks of the opposition, it is hard to imagine the objectors would be as vocal if the changes Obama enacted had been minor.

Jonathan Alter’s book on Obama’s first year in office, The Promise, (a recommended read by the author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope) reinforces with documented evidence the range of Obama’s political agenda. Alter shows an engaged and proactive president with a defined vision of how government can deal with the problems he inherited. He acknowledges it is quite possibly the most activist administration since the FDR years. For instance, we see Obama not paying heed to the careful advice of his closest advisers (Emanuel, Axelrod, Biden) to delay healthcare reform, or at least do it in small doses. You often get the impression Obama sees beyond the next election rather than being obsessed with tactical maneuvers. He is more introspective than communicative. According to Alter, the irony is that Obama the president has been a far less effective communicator than Obama the candidate.

Alter argues the major shortcomings of the administration have been primarily tactical. Too often, there have been “hard to explain” communications failures. The challenges with healthcare reform had a lot to do with how Obama and his people managed their allies in Congress, and how they may have overlearned the lessons from the failed Clinton health initiative of 1993. Similarly, his apparent failure to pass a climate change bill before the mid-terms likely had a lot to do with switching the discourse to immigration reform at a time when influential the Republican Senator Lindsay Graham was working with the administration on a compromise energy/climate change bill with Democrat John Kerry.

Still, as both Krauthammer and Alter show, Obama has pushed ahead with many of the most important aspects of his agenda: healthcare reform; financial regulation reform (the most significant since 1930s); the largest-ever stimulus package, which has transformed important industrial sectors of the U.S. economy; the gradual withdrawal from Iraq and the re-focus on the Afghan war; the START treaty on nuclear weapon limitations with Russia; the imposition of sanctions against Iran; vital education reform (the Race to the Top program was applauded even by conservatives like Bill Bennett); and the elimination of pay discrimination for women.

With the Gulf spill coming under control and BP pledging to pay the costs of the cleanup, Obama can get back into candidate mode very shortly. This is good news for the Democrats. I observed Obama’s campaign very closely in 2007-2008 and he is clearly one of the best campaigners ever. He handles adversity well, remains calm under fire, recalibrates fairly easily, can play hardball when needed, and has an innate capacity to rebound. Even many Republicans concede this, albeit reluctantly.

This may not be enough to offset the mid-term losses, which are expected to be important. It may not even inch his approval ratings upward in the short to medium term. And it certainly will not uproot the Tea Party protest movement come November. But it fits with the burgeoning narrative that some Republicans have discreetly advanced regarding their party’s dangerous lack of clear policy or governing alternatives. The GOP cannot yet answer the question, “What are we proposing and can we gain the people’s trust?” Recent divisions inside the Republican party also feed into this narrative. For conservatives, underestimating Obama and assuming he is a one term president may prove to be a very perilous course.




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Why underestimating Obama is risky

  1. Thank you Mr. Parisella – for doing your duty and reading Krauthammer! I confess – I almost always give him a pass – he makes my teeth grate!
    But for once – I think his column makes sense – is not the usual hard right propaganda pitch!

  2. Ooh, the Steyn Brigade should have some fun with this one :)

  3. Obama has said himself that he'd rather be a one-term president and get his basics in place, than aim for two terms of getting little done. [in the second term you get called a lame-duck anyway]

    Obama has managed to move the basic architecture of the US, no small feat in a country so opposed to change of any kind.

    Meanwhile the Repubs are in chaos, so he has little real opposition left.

  4. More mush from the wimp.

  5. Mostly agreed.
    In fact, I'll be astonished if Obama isn't a two-term President.

    "Alter argues the major shortcomings of the administration have been primarily tactical. "

    There have been tactical errors, but I'd say the primary problem is strategic. A number of Obama's actions have really ticked people off. For example, the American people wanted much-needed reforms to their healthcare system, but they don't want socialized medicine or anything close to it. Another example: bailouts and corporate takeovers. Add to these the blatant dishonesty involved in campaigning on the notion that Bush was "shredding the Constitution" with the Patriot Act and Gitmo, and then renewing the one and leaving the other in place…it all adds up to a bad taste in the mouths of voters.

    But despite all this, Obama is still hovering between 40% and 50% popularity! That's actually remarkable, and speaks volumes about his personal charm and how well liked he is by the public. If the economy shows some recovery, however tepid, he's a shoe-in in 2012.

    • I'm not sure your definition of socialism even remotely resembles it's actual meaning.

      • I'm not sure he made any reference to socialism in that comment.

    • He's actually at 41% today and in a two party presidential election he would be routed.

      So Obama's not likely feeling as good about the numbers as you are.

      • Not to mention that 41% is at the bottom of a non-stop declining trend. If he keeps going at the current pace, without at least a temporary bounce, he'll be about as popular as Nancy Pelosi come 2012.

  6. People forget that Reagan also did bad in polls during his first term. Gosh, that was also during a recession. Do you think there just MIGHT be a connection?

  7. I think the objections from the right have little basis . After all, it was Bush who left Obama holding the bag on the bail-outs, and on stimulus which he might have re-thought had he the times. It must be hard to make a switch from libertarian.fundamentalist thionking to having a social conscience. These are enough of Bushes leavings to deal with. On top of that to effect an improvement in the health carfe system, however incomplete and fragile, is a monumental achievement. At least the bad side of the American public don't come out loud and play the race card, which must bemubling along somewhere in the baxkgrounf. It must gall those whose ancestors were plantation owners to see an African-American in the White House, even if his ancestors weren't in their fields and under their lash.
    d. Hate tends to not forget and IO think there is a lot of hate to go around in America's right. The big distinction here from FDR is that he had most of these Southern Republicans as supporters. I don't think it was until the Civil Rights Act that they switched to their true colours, having carried a grievance against the Republicans since the Civil War. Sir Francis will probably correct me on the details.

    Obama is a practical genious to get as far as he has and it wouldn't surprise me that a little concentration he survives this Fall at least sufficiently that he makes for himself a second term. There may be visible anger but few should blame him for having to carry out Bush's ashes and still get some dort of health plan through. There something like 30 million formerly disadvataged who will praise him for that AT LEAST. And a lot more on the edge who were afraid to look into the pit of poverty. The Repubs hated Truman too.

    • So at what point exactly does the Obama/Bush presidency become the Obama presidency? Why is it that everything bad happening in the USA is the result of Bush's legacy, while everything good happening is the result of Obama's election? Or do Democratic presidents get a free-pass for the next fifty years because of Bush?

  8. There's no question that one has to acknowledge Obama's political skills. He's a demagogue who will exploit any issue for political gain. Race being one such issue. He can't overplay his hand though or it will backfire on him.

    But aside from his health care reform bill, which remains controversial he's accomplished nothing. On the foreign policy front he's been a complete and utter disaster. On the economy, he's been on the outside looking in.

    He was elected via his demagoguery, he'll be turfed by his incompetent governing.

    • If Obama was a demagogue his ratings would be higher.

      Please don't use words without checking the dictionary first.

    • Jarrid -read below what I wrote . Get over the anger and the hate mongering !

      • tommyjoe, Obama's a socialist.

        I'm just calling a spade a spade.

        • watch that expression , jarrid !

        • This just means you don't know what the word 'socialist' means.

  9. There is an old adage 'Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.'

    To a certain extent, the American people were sold a false set of goods by Obama in 2008. He promised to be a uniter, a post-partisan, one who reaches across the aisle. A centrist. Now, if one took the time to examine Obama's track record before the 2008 election, meagre though it was, the evidence was unmistakable that he was on the far left of the democratic party. He was a left-wing ideologue, not a pragmatic unifying politician. Now we know. Now the American public knows.

    I highly doubt they'll be fooled twice. That's why Obama will be a one-term wonder. He's got a 41% approval rate. That's pretty ugly in a two party system. He's never been this low.

    • Well, since none of your version of events is true, it doesn't matter.

    • Who's going to beat him?

      • He'll beat himself mostly.

        He'll self-destruct and the Republicans we'll be able to run a potted plant against him and win.

        • Well that should be easy then….Repubs have a whole party full of potted plants.

        • I don't think so. The potted plants need a lot of fertilizer to be happy. Obama is sprteading it around. I think the ordinary people of the US will respond to Obama much as the ordinary people responded to Harry Truman. Dewey was supposed to be a shoo-in. In fact she was shooed out never again to be a real factor because when his time came he was a loser to Dwight Eisenhower. I think by the time another two years are up he Obama will be in a good position.and have achioeved a few credits with the people who elect. The hard right in the States isin an unnatractive position because they can't deliver. Hilary is unlikely to nose in on the nomination and as to the mess in his first year, I think most of it will be recognized as a Bush hangover.

          And just maybe they will see that an educated man of colour is not a field hand.

          • Time will tell. Americans don't much like socialism or socialists and they unwittingly elected one. They aren't too happy with Obama now.

            The only way Obama can pull through is if he pulls a Bill Clinton and shifts ritght. I don't think Obama is capable of this because unlike Bill Clinton, he's not a pragmatist, he's the real McCoy, that is to say, a real live socilalist.

            A leopard can't change its spots.

          • Obama isn't remotely a socialist, so stop repeating nonsense.

          • I don't think you know what socialiism is – nor do most Americans. Anything towards the centre where there is reasonable income distribution is not sociasm. The Right in the States, particularly the evangelical Right are closer to the looney bin than politics. That is in why in Canada I think Harper is OK in a minority but NOT in a majority. He is too close to the right wing-nuts and religous freaks that supported Bush. The problem is that the Liberals are still fumbling to find their behind. We have NEVER had close to a socialist government in Canada. Even in the provinces the left wing could not be socialist for many reasons. Oh, they were CCF and NDP but they could not be socialist without a similar govt in Ottawa so they could control the factors of production. The Supereme Court owuld give short shrift to that and hs done so in the past. They spent money until they were thrown out. Even then, their period of power was too short to make the necessary changes and after 4 or 5 years the people would throw them out. Why? Because they woouild kill enterprise and drag the country downward.

            Oh, I know, in the US any requirement of the greedies to give up something that is theirs, not by hard work as they pretend,, but by keeping an unfair share of the country's product. They blanche at the sound of the words "income distribution" , a principle of sharing that is recognized in most modern industrial countries. The less fortunate sometimes deserve more because the creation of wealth is not just by the entrepreneur – or even by capital and labour – but it is by the whole country giving a home for all the other factors of production tosafely operate. One of the reasons the Bushes and their friends made mint out of oil and guided theft such as the rebuilding of Iraq is that the people have had the Horatio Alger story – a very unreal myth – pushed down the throats of the disadvataged until they believe it. Sure, you have the odd Bill Gates but for every one of them there are millions of John Does who were sucked into buying homes they couldn't afford. My my, I do run on.

          • I think you need to read this.

            If Obama is a "socialist", doesn't that make our current Prime Minister an out and out Communist???

        • Sounds very similar to how Obama got himself elected, actually. And I'd have to agree with you since Obama has a tough time getting even some Democrats to agree with him, I think it's pretty clear he's outside of the mainstream of even his own party.

          • Aren't most of the Dems who are upset with Obama upset that he's being too centrist?

        • Ahhh, the "don't worry about our lack of a coherent policy platform or a viable candidate, Obama will defeat HIMSELF argument"! I see no problems there whatsoever.

    • The killer line in there is:

      'You know what you'll see happening? Nothing. When I'm in the chair, I sit there thinking, I wonder what they're doing in China right now?" '

      Exactly. And this is the senate Harper wants US to have??

  10. you know jarrid does not do his homework when he misunderstands the meaning of the word 'socialism ' and misspells it. He is so blinded by his hatred of Obama that he can't think straight .

  11. it is Obama's birthday and I just listened to a documentary about Lincoln.I cannot help thinking about how great America can be in fulfilling the promise of Lincoln with Obama.
    Now jarrid who does not know the meaning of socialism nor does he have an understanding of history as he forgets Clinton and Reagan had lower numbers than Obama at the same time in their terms. And they did 2 terms!.
    With his Tea Party mindset and far right rhetoric,he will tell us Obama is a communist . Yeah , by giving 32 million new customers to private insurers. Shame on you ,jarrid !

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