Political observers of a certain age will remember the night of March 31, 1968. At the very end of a long speech about the Vietnam War, President Johnson shocked the nation with his announcement that “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
Don’t be surprised if Obama makes a similar announcement.
To understand why, it’s worth looking at how we got the President we have.
Whose idea was this anyway?
Early rumblings of a possible Obama run were reported by Dan Balz in a Washington Post story in October of 2006 the day after an appearance Obama made on Meet the Press.
“At this point, Obama is a political phenomenon but hardly a tested politician on the national stage.” Balz wrote. “He has captured the imagination of Democrats and others mostly through a combination of glamour and intellect. He has no legislative record to speak of, given the short time he has been in the Senate and the fact that Democrats are in the minority.”
No legislative record to speak of. In January 2007, CBS News ran a story headlined “Obama Record May Be Gold Mine For Critics” and noted that “He voted against requiring medical care for aborted fetuses who survive. He supported allowing retired police officers to carry concealed weapons, but opposed allowing people to use banned handguns to defend against intruders in their homes. And the list of sensitive topics goes on.”
It wasn’t some overarching political achievement or some act of inspirational leadership that made him a serious contender. Sure, he had rocked the house with his keynote speech at the Democrat’s 2004 convention, but other than that, there really was no there, there.
Obama didn’t jump into the lead right away. His official announcement was on February 10, 2007, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll at the end of that month showed Hillary leading among Democrats at 36%, with Obama at 24%. A poll released May 3 by Quinnipiac University showed little change, with Clinton still leading 32% to 18%. As late as December 2007, Quinnipiac released results that showed Clinton leading by no less than 28% in each of three important states.
Hardly a groundswell. Was there something happening behind the scenes?
Was Obama chosen because he was a follower?
The political world was rocked when Ted Kennedy, liberal icon and “the Lion of the Senate” endorsed the young candidate from Illinois in January 2008. At that time, Clinton and Obama had each won two primaries and were preparing for February 5th when 22 states were to hold primaries and caucuses. Reaction was immediate.
“The America of Jack and Bobby Kennedy touched all of us. Through all of these decades, the one who kept that flame alive was Ted Kennedy,” Representative Bill Delahunt told the Boston Globe. “So having him pass on the torch [to Obama] is of incredible significance. It’s historic.”
Other endorsements followed. Soon the party establishment began to abandon the seasoned Senator from New York who had impressed even Republican colleagues with her workmanlike approach to her job in favour of the untested Junior Senator from Illinois without a record.
Why would they do that? In the 2010 book “Game Change” by Mark Halperin and John Heilmann, Harry Reid was quoted in 2008 referring to the candidate in a private conversation as “light-skinned” and with “no Negro dialect.”
In that same book it was alleged that former president Bill Clinton told the late Sen. Ted Kennedy that “a few years ago this guy [Obama] would have been getting us coffee.”
Joe Biden was widely quoted when he described the future President by saying “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
These three influential Democrats hardly seemed to revere Obama as the leader and intellect the press was falling in love with.
Four years on, there is a small, but growing rumbling in the political underground that Obama was chosen precisely because of his light weight. The argument is that he was promoted over Hillary because he would be malleable and would “lead from behind.” In other words, he’d follow.
Party elders sensed that his charisma, effective speaking style and inspiring tale as a bi-racial success story made him a product they could sell to the voters. After the sale, he’d be easy to control.
The press loved the screenplay and the voters were mesmerized by the chimera of hope and change. Most importantly, Obama himself bought into the hype.
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Obama told us in February 2008.
By June he was even more Messianic. “I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when …the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal…”
For the first two years of his presidency, Obama believed the buildup. And why wouldn’t he? Even before his inauguration, he was widely compared to Lincoln, the bi-partisan saint of the American political pantheon. Time ran a cover of him as FDR. After less than a year in office with no tangible accomplishments he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by a committee that deserved their own prize for wishful thinking.
With bulletproof majorities in both houses of congress who did the wonky work of drafting the radical legislation they’d been plotting since the 1960’s, the Obama’s partied in the White House, flew off to date nights in New York City, and racked up vacation days.
Sure, it was an activist presidency, but from the start, he handed the initiative to the congressional Democrats while he worked on his golf game. His administration’s first major legislation was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the failed stimulus. A bill written by a carnival of greedy hands, it was a field day for Congressional Democrats and a payoff to union supporters, but did nothing except run up $800 billion in debt with little return.
Remember the specifics of the plan that Obama laid out on Healthcare? You don’t. He didn’t advance a plan. Obamacare was the work of progressive radicals in Congress who had waited decades to impose national health care whether we wanted it or not.
The Music Stops and the Crowd Turns Ugly
Within 90 days of the inauguration, voters began to reject the heavy hand of their new government, and from that came the Teaparty movement. Rather than temper their plans or attempt to lead in the direction they wanted to take us, the Democrats pushed through their dream legislation over the protests of the majority on Christmas Eve. The battle was joined.
The 2010 election was an historic rejection of the status quo, and almost immediately the Democrat’s fortunes began to turn. With a leadership vacuum in the White House, and before the new Congress was even seated, the administration was forced to cave on their plan to repeal the Bush Tax cuts.
Obama now acts like he no longer believes the 2008 hype. This year, they’ve lost the battles on the Continuing Resolution and the budget, backed Mubarak and then abandoned him impressing no one, and staked out an unpopular position on Libya while muddling the efforts in Afghanistan. Obama’s economy is awful and getting worse, and he has just presided over the first credit downgrade in the history of the nation.
Obama’s approval rating fell to 39% last week, a good 6 points below where Bush was at this stage of his presidency. This week he’s roaming the Midwest in a menacing looking black bus, trying without conviction or success to convince voters that the economic malaise is anyone’s fault but his. He promises to unveil a jobs program next month, but gives no thought to cancelling his Martha’s Vineyard while the nation sweats through a difficult August.
The President is diminished. Having lost control of the conversation and the surety of power after the last election, Obama’s leadership void is now a mortal wound. There is no Kennedy is guide him, no giants to protect him, and the likes of Reid and Pelosi are toxic to all but the most loyal Democrats. There is no reason to believe that poll numbers will be going up anytime soon. Why suffer the degradation of humiliating defeat?
Fast forward to March 31, 2012. Imagine a re-election campaign facing approvals of 35% or less, wide dissatisfaction in his own party, and a solid majority against him among likely voters. Is it so hard to imagine Obama decling a second campaign when he’s no longer the cool new guy?
Do not be surprised to hear a reprise of “I shall not seek, and will not accept…”