Will the center-leaning and politically roadblocked President Obama have the force to resurrect the charismatic and inspirational Candidate Obama that we all remember from his momentous 2008 campaign? A few years ago, the symbolism that shrouded Barack Obama—the first African-American President in our country’s history running on an optimistic platform of “hope and change” with a commitment to bipartisanship made him seem more like a deity than a politician to many of his ardent supporters. Relatively inexperienced for the White House position, the charismatic Candidate Obama inherited a rising debt, two longstanding wars, a nation on the brink of recession, escalating unemployment, a broken healthcare system, and a horde of mismanaged and malfunctioning federal agencies. That Obama failed to turn water into gold after a little over a year was cause enough to make a significant portion of his electorate feel disillusioned.
However, Obama has taken every opportunity to remind the nation of the articulate and likeable guy whom they elected in 2008. Obama twice addressed a joint session of Congress in ’09, once about his economic agenda and once about health reform, and had an “adult conversation” with the nation about race in the wake of “Gates-gate.” Legislatively, Obama’s first term has achieved many milestones. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that Congress passed in 2010 accomplished what no other U.S. President has been able to do since Theodore Roosevelt first took up the cause nearly a century ago: reforming the national healthcare system. After months of behind-the-scenes wrangling, swelling concessions to the conservative minority (the public option was off the table from the beginning), ongoing negotiations among the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of six” committee, a near collapse on the brink of reconciliation with the special election in Massachusetts of Scott Brown, and ideological fear-mongering about “death panels” and state mandated abortions by the Tea Party, the watered-down reform package that Congress did pass, to many, did not seem worth the political capital that it had cost President Obama.
Despite Obama’s intellectual prowess, legislative successes, and the putative lack of any serious opposition from either side, it remains unclear whether the nation will be able to rally around Candidate Obama once again in 2012. Some journalists and news analysts argue that the unemployment rate will play the decisive factor in determining Obama’schances for re-election. Since F.D.R., no American president has been re-elected with an unemployment rate above 7.2% (Ronald Reagan, who had a 7.2 % unemployment rate, took 49 states against Walter Mondale in 1984). If Congress had failed to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling again by August 2nd, a calamitous default on our national debt would have fostered a most unfavorable re-election campaign climate for Obama.
Even though Congress managed to avert a mandatory default by the skin of its teeth, the significant government spending cuts that the President negotiated with Congress might very well push unemployment past the 7.2% Reagan cut-off, undoing the moderate economic recovery that we have gained since the height of the recession. The $787 billion stimulus package that Obama spearheaded in 2009 helped to stanch the worst of the economic bloodletting. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created an impetus for growth with substantial tax incentives, unemployment benefits, and numerous provisions for domestic spending. Without the stimulus bill, the situation would have been much worse. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman reminded us in an ’09 editorial critique, the stimulus package did not go far enough: Though, “To be sure, a third of a loaf of bread is better than none.
In the spirit of Obama’s bipartisanship, the stimulus bill, like many of his other legislative achievements, managed to displease both sides at once. For those who do not believe that the historical unemployment limits set by the Reagan Administration can determine the outcome of the next Presidential election, other factors do weigh in the balance. Obama’s NATO defense commitments in Libya may be in breach of the War Powers Act that Congress passed in 1973 shortly after Vietnam. Even though we have no troops on the ground in Libya and a disciplined timeline for imminent withdrawal, accompanied by ongoing troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden’s death this May in Abbottabad, Pakistan, if the Libya issue can make Senate hawks like Lindsey Graham and Richard Lugar “go soft on defense,” it might just provide enough fodder to hinder Obama in the next election.
With all of the grandstanding and the increasing blurring between politics and entertainment in America’s news climate today, the idea that the Obama Administration has made things “less worse” than they would have been otherwise has not gained much steam. Obama’s recognition as a tepid political centrist by the liberal left, compounded by the Tea Party’s nonsensical condemnation of him as a Kenyan-born socialist, has left Obama little space in which to govern, fostering his legislative record of kowtowing to contradictory demands from both the left and the right at the same time.
Indeed, Obama’s and the Democrats’ inability to take control of the political narrative has cost them significant capital and has made it very difficult for them to go about the job of legislating change. During Obama’s first two years, the 111th Senate broke more filibusters than any other Senate in recorded history. Obama has faced unprecedented difficulty confirming basic political appointments. For example, Elizabeth Warren’s platform of financial transparency has all but precluded her confirmation to direct the crucial Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that she helped create—Obama has withheld comment about whether he will defy the Senate by appointing her. In an economy still reeling from the disastrous effects of opaque lending practices and accelerated processes of deregulation that precipitated the 2008 financial crisis, Obama’s basic inability to consolidate his executive power against ideological roadblocks in Congress has indeed crippled his promise to lead the country out of recession and high unemployment. In the early months of Obama’s presidency, Americans found his oratory prowess alone reassuring in comparison to that of the previous commander in chief.
If President Obama has fallen short of our great expectations for him, perhaps the return of Candidate Obama will reawaken what was once his overwhelming public support. To gear up for his campaign transition, Obama returned to Iowa this June. Addressing four hundred workers in an aluminum factory, Obama managed to couch a warning about continued slow economic recovery in a more reassuring tone of hope and optimism: “The problems that we developed didn’t happen overnight; we’re not going to solve them overnight either. ”This familiar tune of patience and gradualism could be the theme song for the first term of the Obama Administration. No wonder Obama is having PR problems.
Still, Obama’s media woes “pale in” comparison to those of his potential G.O.P. opponents (no Palin pun intended, since she has officially yet to enter the race). With frontrunners like Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann (who believes that the founding fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery), the Republican Party appears to be “punting” this 2012 election, with more “serious” candidates like Mitch Daniels and Marco Rubio waiting on the sidelines for 2016.
If anything, the current G.O.P. field has been providing more fodder for late-night comedians than it has been provoking genuine political concern from the Democrats. Jon Stewart lampooned the Republican lineup of dopplegangers: the moderate, Mormon ex-governors (Romney and Huntsman), as Stewart quipped, “American history-challenged hotness” (Bachmann and Palin), conservative firebrands from Georgia (Cain and Gingrich)—to this list Stewart added “a pair of oak trees” (Pawlenty and a picture of an oak tree). Kidding aside, Obama’s moderate former ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, could easily give him a run for his money—especially if the unemployment rate teeters past that mythical Reagan cutoff. The way things are going, with the nation on the brink of default, not because of unmanageable debt like Greece, but because of ideological differences in Congress about tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans; weather calamities from earthquakes, to wildfires, to hurricanes blighting the heartland; and corporations outweighing labor unions on human rights issues for the purpose of fostering G.O.P. fundraising, who knows where we will be in 2012.
Maggie Hennefeld hails from Brooklyn, NY and currently lives in Providence, RI, studying in a Modern Culture and Media Ph.D. Program at Brown University. She worked for four years during college as a writer and section editor of 34th Street, the weekly Arts and Entertainment magazine of The Daily Pennsylvanian. Maggie has published in academic journals including Screen, Media Fields, and CUREJ. She plans to write her dissertation about early slapstick film comedy, gender, and the politics of modernity.