Obama's Election Debacle: A Settling of Accounts with Mr. Perfect
The Democrats suffered a debacle at the polls in the US on Tuesday -- and President Barack Obama is to blame. Once celebrated as a great communicator, the president has lost touch with the mood in his country. Now, he must re-invent himself. But can he succeed?
On Thursday, US President Barack Obama will be leaving Washington behind. He is embarking on a trip to Asia, including a stop in Indonesia. The flight is a long one -- almost an entire day. But Obama lived for a time in Indonesia as a child, and the feeling of being at home is something the president could use these days.
After the Congressional elections on Tuesday, it is certainly not a feeling he can enjoy in the US. The president can analyze the results all he wants, the dramatic losses his Democrats experienced at the polls and the loss of control of the House of Representatives. But he is unlikely to find a simple answer to the question as to how he should proceed.
To the right he is confronted by the stark hatred of the Tea Party movement. In the political center, voters abandoned Obama in droves. And on the left there are complaints that instead of Mr. Change, Obama has turned into Mr. Weakling. Young voters and African Americans are, of course, still behind Obama, but many of them didn't even bother to cast their ballots on Tuesday.
The debacle, the largest loss of seats for the president's party in more than half a century, isn't just a warning for Obama. It is a demolition. For two years, Obama was allowed to hope that he had managed to capture the heads of American voters in addition to their hearts. In fact, however, he only managed to find his way to their hearts, and only for a short time.
The Country's Lecturer-in-Chief
America, indeed the entire world, fell in love with the idea in November, 2008 of having a young, black president in the White House. Voters felt that they could be a part of the change that they so wanted -- a change that Obama promised so eloquently.
But the voters' affection evaporated quickly. Campaigns are like poetry, it is said, whereas governing is prose. To be sure, the crises Obama faced when he took the oath of office were enormous. But so too were the opportunities -- like that of explaining to Americans how urgently reforms were needed.
Obama, the great communicator, turned into the country's lecturer-in-chief. His reforms required a vision to give them an overarching structure. But instead, Obama preferred to go on about the failures of his predecessor George W. Bush, who had long retired to his ranch in Texas. Or else he analyzed how the impact of the global recession would have been far worse without him and his economic rescue team.
His advisors seem to still believe that the public just doesn't understand how much good Obama has achieved, from health care reform to tougher regulations for the Wall Street gamblers.
They may well be right. But they are not doing the president any favors. No American without work wants to hear how the unemployment figures would be at 15 percent instead of 10 percent if it were not for the man in the White House. And no one casts their vote out of gratitude.
Uncertainty in America
It seems to have escaped Obama, the great listener, just how fragile the American Dream has become for many Americans or how much they yearn for clear words about their future -- rather than details about health insurance. Instead of listening he has become deaf in the White House. He has not understood how uncertain Americans have become. Perhaps because he has always seemed so self-assured himself.
From day one Obama made it look as if he had grown up in the Oval Office -- and continued in his role there as Mr. Perfect: the slender athlete, the award-winning author, the smooth orator, the loving husband and father. Not to mention, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
When America is feeling self-confident and optimistic it can adore this kind of president, like John F. Kennedy was idolized during the Camelot era. However, an America that is uncertain and at odds with itself can find it hard to place its trust in someone who seems so perfect. That too helps to explain why so many people see the former community worker as a member of the establishment -- someone who is allegedly in cahoots with Wall Street and who doesn't take care of ordinary people.
One may find it ironic, unfair even, that the Republicans are profiting from this. But Obama must realize that he himself is part of the problem. That is his only chance of repeating Bill Clinton's success. Clinton shifted towards the center following the crushing defeat for his Democrats in the 1994 Congressional elections.
Becoming More Humble
Clinton accepted criticism and listened to it. He joked about his weaknesses. It was in his nature to court opponents. After his mid-term defeat he quickly cooperated with the Republicans to forge a major welfare reform.
Obama has never had to court favor, people regarded him as a star right from the start. He takes himself seriously, he only trusts a small number of close aides and he finds it hard to charm members of Congress.
But he has no alternative now. He has to take the anger of the voters seriously even if they supported the Tea Party. He may even have to negotiate with Republicans about measures to curb the budget deficit. The political messiah needs to eat a piece of humble pie.
Clinton responded to his mid-term setback by singling out small issues that he could turn into big victories. Suddenly the world's most powerful man was fighting for school uniforms or television programming for children. These were minor policies, but they were popular. Clinton soon managed to claw himself back up in opinion polls.
During the election campaign Obama poked fun at such maneuvers. After all, he wanted to change the country. "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president," he said in January. If he sticks to that view, he won't have the choice.
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