Obama's Triumphs Are Also His Weaknesses: Health Care, Stimulus, Financial Reform

Article excerpt

President Obama's domestic agenda has been as ambitious as any president's in the last 50 years - including health care, economic stimulus, and financial reform. But such ambition has not always been rewarded by voters.

After 18 months on the job, Barack Obama has made his mark as the do-something president.

Economy near collapse? Less than a month after taking office, President Obama signed a record $787 billion stimulus package. Comprehensive health-care reform? Obama succeeded, after a grueling year-long legislative process, where predecessors going back decades had failed. Credit-card reform? Check. Student loan reform? Done. Financial regulatory reform? Close.

To Obama supporters, this burst of activity represents a welcome record of accomplishment after eight years of damaging Republican rule. To critics, it is an abomination marked by runaway deficits, dangerously high public debt, and government overreach.

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But on one aspect there is no doubt. Obama has not won many new fans with his activism. After winning the election in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote, and taking office with popularity ratings well into the 60s, Obama's job-approval ratings have declined steadily into the mid-40s - and stand at just 38 percent among independents, according to Gallup. Neither will his Democratic Party be rewarded for this activism in the November midterm elections. In fact, a conservative backlash against Obama's agenda, fueled by, but not limited to, the "tea party" movement, points to an electoral wave that could topple the Democratic majority in the House and cut deeply into the party's big majority in the Senate.

Obama's political peril comes as no surprise to analysts, who see a history of presidents courting trouble by doing big things. True, the president's party typically loses seats in the midterm elections. But even Democrats are starting to worry out loud that their ranks could suffer far more than the average 24 House seat loss, potentially shedding the 39 seats Republicans need to take control.

"Great legislative success can generate great political opposition," says Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. "There also might be a more cerebral Obama at work. Meaning, these are problems he thought were essential, and he'd rather go down in four years or be weaker in his second term, if he could get some of these problems solved. My guess is it's a mix."

In addition, if Obama had scaled back or given up on health care, he would have discouraged his base supporters, which would have dampened Democratic enthusiasm for the midterms even more than it already is. And chances are, Obama's job-approval ratings were going to decline regardless of what happened on health care, as soft Obama supporters (mainly independents) discovered he was not a miracle worker.

At the heart of Obama's problem lies the economy, with stubbornly high unemployment and fears of a double-dip recession. Americans vote their pocketbooks, and if they don't like what they see, many voters will rebel. And even as the Obama administration touts the jobs that have been created and saved via stimulus spending (mostly saved, and mostly in the public sector), and blames Republicans for blocking an extension of unemployment benefits, the bottom line is still wanting, and the party in power owns it.

Obama also prides himself in being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. He regularly heads out into the heartland for "Main Street" economic speeches designed to reassure Americans he's on the case. But Obama has also held tight to the big, ranging agenda he campaigned on two years ago - succeeding on health care, though taking far longer than he had planned, and close to completion on Wall Street regulatory reform. Energy and climate change legislation remains in limbo, and comprehensive immigration reform is not even in the starting gate. …