Just shy of three-and-one-half years ago, Barack Obama entered the Oval Office with more good will perhaps than any newly-elected president since Jimmy Carter. He had vowed to change the tone in our nation’s capital, a vow welcome after sixteen years (with a brief hiatus just after 9/11) of polarized politics.
And yet a year after Obama’s inauguration, Gallup reported that the Democrat’s approval was the most polarized for any “First-Year President.”
I recalled that abrupt shift yesterday when following the link Jay Cost’s insightful piece on “Obama’s dilemma” (more on that in my next post) to Sean Trende’s article from the previous day “about what Obama could have done differently in 2009“. That article also merits your time — and attention.
Trende approaches the topic from a slightly different perspective than I did when considering the swift drop in Obama’s approval. Trende considers the different policy approaches the president should have taken. Instead of a constant re-pivot to the economy, the Democrat, Trende contends, could have kept his focus on the economy. I wondered about the incumbent’s tone, whining about the problems he inherited, blaming Republicans for obstruction (or being beholden to the politics of the past).
On one major point, however, Trende’s thinking (approximately) parallels my own:
the president would have been much better off breaking the stimulus up into five or six pieces, spread out over his first 100 days. His presidency would have had a very different narrative attached to it if the first major piece of legislation passed by his administration had been $275 billion in tax cuts — or even better, two or three pieces of tax-cut legislation, grouped by subject — followed a week later by the unemployment compensation, followed a week later by the infrastructure spending, followed a week later by health care and education assistance, finished off with a miscellaneous bill.
For one thing, the headlines would have been dominated by the tax cuts, aid to the unemployed and to education, and so forth. Instead, there was a massive, amorphous “stimulus” with a $787 billion price tag for people to digest.
Quite frankly, Republicans would have supported at least some of the measures — in fact, the “mini-stimuli” approved throughout late 2009 and 2010 almost all passed with substantial Republican support. So it would have been with a “pure” tax-cut bill that kicked off the president’s term.
If he had insisted on breaking up the stimulus, the president would instead of needing to rally his own party for one big vote, would have constantly been reaching out to Congress, likely forging different coalitions for each bill — working with Republicans on several.
We would see him working energetically — over a period of weeks — on measures to stimulate the economy. And that energetic image would likely have become impressed in Americans’ minds. They may not supported his every policy, but at least appreciated his constant effort.
This process would also have required the Democrat to check his urge to engage in partisan grandstanding. Not only would he have avoided the divisive rhetoric which undermined the post-partisan persona of his campaign, but he would also have established a record of working with Republicans on major legislation.
He would thus have lived up to his campaign rhetoric.
Instead, he believed the headlines — and editorials in the left-leaning dailies — about 2008 being a realigning election. He would have been better served, as Trende puts it, if he seen “the talk of a 40-year stint in the wilderness for Republicans that was so prominent in 2008 and 2009 . . . as bunk rather than received [it] as conventional wisdom.”
Had the president been more magnanimous in tone and more humble in approach, he might be doing better today in the polls — even with a stagnant economy.