Barack Obama Failed to Change Washington

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 2, 2012

The Huffington Post is not what one would call a right-of-center publication, which makes it all the more interesting that it seems to be echoing a lot of the points Mitt Romney likes to make in discussing the ineffectiveness of this administration’s brand of leadership:

In the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson was left to pursue his predecessor’s unfinished legislative agenda. White House insiders considered the task nearly impossible. The civil rights bill was bottled up in the House Rules Committee, where its chairman was intent on running out the clock until the election the next year. A critical tax cut, meanwhile, was bogged down in the Senate, where the Finance Committee chairman was holding it hostage.

Johnson surveyed the legislative landscape and knew he had to shake things up.

Rather than negotiate with Congress, Johnson turned the goodwill of the nation into a force with which to bludgeon the GOP and expand what was politically possible. He took his case to the American people, reminding them that the GOP was the “Party of Lincoln,” and flooded Washington with religious leaders who lobbied Congress.

The result was a tax cut that is largely credited with ushering in an era of high growth and, of course, the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Had Johnson stuck to inside baseball, he would have struck out twice.

Barack Obama could have learned something from LBJ. As a candidate Obama promised to change the way Washington works and he rode a wave of global support into the White House. His first two years in office have repeatedly been compared to the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Society under Johnson, with historic achievements on health care, Wall Street reform and other domestic priorities.

But Obama’s first term has also left many of his supporters wondering whether those accomplishments could have been bigger in size, scope and impact. The health care reform legislation was built largely off a conservative model, with millions of people shuttled into the private market. The financial regulatory reform bill contained carve-outs for the private sector and is widely regarded as not far-reaching enough to curb some of the banking industry’s worst practices. The White House made little effort to push labor priorities like the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have granted workers more avenues to form unions. The Iraq war may have ended, but the war in Afghanistan heated up, with lingering confusion as to why troops remain there.

Now, just a few months before the election, Obama is suffering from an engagement gap. According to a late July Gallup poll, only 39 percent of Democrats said they were “more enthusiastic” than usual about voting. That number was 61 percent at a similar time in 2008. Republicans, meanwhile, are more fired up now (51 percent) than they were in 2008 (35 percent).

Obama is no longer regarded by the majority of voters as a constructive reformer. An August 21 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only 37 percent of the respondents thought he would bring the “right kind of change” in his second term.

Although Democrats tend to like the president more than Republicans like Mitt Romney, his re-election is far from assured.

One key question this analysis raises for Obamaphiles is why they are so willing to support a president who is so bad at bending Washington to his will. It’s too late to do anything about the fact that President Obama will be re-nominated in Charlotte this coming week, but liberals can stay home or vote for a third party candidate to make it clear that their votes should not be taken for granted by the Democrats.

I don’t suspect that Obamaphiles will do this, of course. Their need to win outweighs any and all ideological, philosophical and programmatic concerns about this president. But it should be clear by now that when it came to choosing a world-class political operator, they chose rather poorly.

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