Change We Can Believe In

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria

It's time for the president to stop legislating and start leading.

How bad do things look for Barack Obama? Some historical perspective is useful. His approval ratings after one year in office are about the same as Ronald Reagan's or Jimmy Carter's and, in fact, are a bit higher than Bill Clinton's. The Bushes fared better than all three of them, but for unusual reasons: 41 because he presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union in his first year in office, and 43 because the nation rallied around him after 9/11. As the economy improves, Obama's numbers will surely rebound somewhat.

Still, last week's special election in Massachusetts is a sign that Obama has a big problem. The public has clearly registered a protest vote against him, congressional Democrats, and their signature policy proposal: the health-care bill. The size of the swing, the issues raised during the campaign and in exit polls, and the migration of independents all suggest that Obama is confronting not just generalized anger but dissatisfaction with the course that the ruling party has taken. How he responds will shape the rest of his term.

A great debate has begun on the nature of that response. My own advice would be simple: Barack Obama needs to act like a president, especially the president he campaigned to become.

In his enduring treatise, The American Commonwealth, James Bryce, a British writer who toured the United States in the late 19th century, observed that the Founding Fathers had created a president who would, in a crucial sense, resemble the British king, "not only in being the head of the executive, but in standing apart from and above political parties. He was to represent the nation as a whole --c The independence of his position, with nothing either to gain or to fear from Congress, would, it was hoped, leave him free to think only of the welfare of the people."

Obama began his presidency in this vein. In his response to the economic crisis, he steered a clear middle course, refusing to accept the left's cries for bank nationalization but also adopting a far more vigorous and Keynesian approach than the right could accept. In foreign policy, he reset America's image in the world in a manner that earned him kudos from the likes of James Baker and Brent Scowcroft. But that broader, presidential approach was partly set aside in passing the fiscal stimulus and then abandoned altogether in the drive to change the American health-care system.

Over the past six months--which have correlated with his dramatic drop in the polls--Obama has behaved less like a president and more like a prime minister. He has not outlined a broad vision for the country. He has not embraced the best solutions--from left and right--for the nation's problems. Instead he has behaved as the head of the Democratic Party in Congress, working almost entirely with and through that caucus, slicing and dicing policy proposals to cobble together legislative majorities. He has allowed the great policy program of his presidency to be written and defined by a collection of congressional Democrats, accepting the lopsided bills that emerged and the corruption inherent in the process.

If he represents all the people, Obama should remember that for 85 percent of Americans, the great health-care crisis is about cost. …