Obama’s inspiration is nearing expiration

Once seen as the vanguard of change, Obama's brand of politics now reeks of perspiration, as he falters on big policy issues such as healthcare, Syria and foreign trade.

FT.com

Anyone wondering about the scale of the anti-Obama backlash should look at its impact on the 2016 US presidential race. Both major parties are looking for candidates with genuine executive experience. The Republican list of hopefuls is filling up with sitting governors. Among Democrats, hopes rest mainly with Hillary Clinton. Should Elizabeth Warren, the popular senator from Massachusetts, enter the fray then Clinton’s riposte would trip off the tongue. Warren has no governing experience, she could say. And we all know the risks of that.

Having authored an inspirational politics, President Barack Obama’s difficulties are spawning a new fashion for perspiration. Given its limited powers, the strength of the US presidency derives largely from its occupant’s credibility.

Faith in Obama’s competence was already negative. Doubts now extend to his personal integrity. A majority of Americans tell pollsters that they no longer believe he is always telling the truth. Were Obama in a different system, he would be fending off a leadership challenge or facing a snap election. Since the US constitution rules out those options, Obama is in danger of becoming a permanent lame duck.

Is it too late to stop that from happening? The technical answer is obviously no. If three years is ample time to learn, say, Mandarin, or train to be a teacher, it ought to be enough to learn how to govern better. But Obama’s problems derive chiefly from his tendency to be over-political rather than from a lack of time. His fumbling response to the woes engulfing the Affordable Care Act show how hard it is for him to kick his campaigning instincts – even if his presidency depends on it.

Obama has continually promised more from his signature healthcare reform than it can deliver. In addition to telling Americans that they could keep their insurance if they liked it -- a pledge that millions now know was untrue -- Obama said the law would extend coverage to the one in six uninsured Americans, reduce costs for the other five and improve delivery for all six.

There ought to have been more scepticism about whether he could make a thing universally available, higher quality and cheaper all at the same time. Only price controls and public provision could conceivably have done that. And Obama had ruled those out early on.

Four years later, Obama is still doling out rash promises. On Thursday he told Americans who have lost their existing insurance policies in the past six weeks that they could retrieve them if they liked them. He forgot to check with the fifty state regulators, who administer the law, and the insurance companies, which are crucial to its take up.

Obama also overlooked lessons of his own presidency, which shows the pitfalls of treating speeches as governing. Instead he announced a short-term palliative. Policy holders were told to blame the insurance companies, rather than the White House, if they could not retrieve the policies they lost. This latest shift is also likely to boomerang. Obama will need the industry’s full co-operation to put healthcare reform back on track.

The contagion is starting to spread to his own party. Fearful of losing their seats next year, Democrats are defecting in growing numbers on a widening range of issues, from the Middle East to Obamacare. Last week, 39 Democrats joined Republicans in voting to suspend an important chunk of the law. More are planning to do so in the Senate. Until recently, Obama had a reasonable chance of passing a big immigration reform this year. The Senate passed a bill last summer and there were stirrings in the House of Representatives. Last week, however, John Boehner, the House speaker, put paid to those hopes. Nothing will happen in 2013, he said. Prospects for an overhaul before next year’s midterm elections are slim.

Obama’s trade agenda is also starting to look parlous at a time when both his big initiatives are approaching crunch moments. His ability to wrest concessions from his Pacific and European partners will hinge on whether Congress will give him fast-track negotiating authority, which would allow him to submit any deal to a straight up or down vote. The odds Congress will grant him that are deteriorating – Democrats are his staunchest opponents. The same applies to hopes of a decent interim deal with Iran when talks resume in Geneva this week. There is no big issue, foreign or domestic, on which Obama can confidently pledge to deliver. Congress is itching to shoot things down.

If this sounds too gloomy, consider Obama’s second-term record to date. With the exception of having stared down Republicans last month over their threat of a default, he has fallen at almost every hurdle. This year began with attempts to impose tougher checks on gun buyers following the massacre of 20 infants in a Connecticut school. When the initiative began to falter, Obama put his authority on the line. The bill was defeated. It has been much the same ever since, from his request for authority to strike Syria to prospects of a fiscal deal. Talk of an initiative on climate change is a memory.

There is little reason to be confident Obama’s power will rally sharply from this nadir. Robert Frost once summed up in three words what he had learned about life. “It goes on,” said the poet. At the moment that looks like the best that can be forecast for Obama’s presidency.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. 

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