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A SPECIAL SECTION:  Haiti since the January 12, 2010 Earthquake
Posted July 15, 2010
Talking Politics
barack obama
From the Gulf oil disaster to the debacle in Afghanistan, Barack Obama is facing tough challenges no matter where he looks.
Eighteen months after Barack Obama took office with the largest plateful of troubles of any president in recent memory, it would seem only fair for him to finally get a stretch of smooth sailing. That doesn't look like it's in the cards. From the stalled economic recovery, to the oil lapping upon our southern shores, to the increasingly bloody war front in Afghanistan, the coming months appear to be just as challenging as the ones behind.

And the public's patience may be wearing thin. You'll recall the punditry debating, as Obama took office, how long he would have until Americans began holding him responsible for the recession and wars he inherited - six months? A year? Two?

If he doesn't reverse this soon, Obama will enter next year with disaster all around.

The line may be here, at a year and a half. Until recently, polling has consistently shown that the public (aside from core Obamaphobes) still hold George W. Bush and Wall Street responsible for current economic conditions.

That's starting to change. "I think that Obama is getting more and more blame every month," says Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, in Raleigh, North Carolina. That hasn't brought down Obama's approval rating much — although it has dipped from 49 percent in January to 46 today, according to RealClearPolitics's average of polls - but by now, at the end of four straight quarters of economic growth, the number should be going up, and it isn't.

A majority of Americans have little or no confidence in Obama's ability to make the right decisions, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll. A variety of pollsters and pundits now predict a savage repudiation of Democrats in November, possibly saddling him with one or both chambers of Congress under Republican control.

Such things don't seem to worry the president much. In the 2008 campaign, and since taking office, "No Drama" Obama has refused to operate in response to current poll numbers.

"He doesn't try to win every news cycle," says Seth Masket, assistant director of political science at the University of Denver. "He's less mindful of public opinion now, and more cognizant of what it might be in different scenarios in the long run."

Obama is right that public opinion will come back to him when things go well. But things are increasingly stacked against that happening. To effectively handle the continuing and looming troubles, Obama needs cooperation from Congress, business, foreign leaders, and even everyday citizens. Without popular backing, he increasingly can't get them to follow his lead. That's making the problems worse, which of course drives his popularity, and authority, down further. If he doesn't reverse this soon, he'll enter next year with disaster all around - and he'll have his hands full just to keep the GOP from undoing what he has accomplished so far.
Economic psychology
The country shed 125,000 jobs in June, and other indicators have brought back fears of a double-dip recession - three months after a string of solid indicators prompted Newsweek magazine to declare AMERICA IS BACK! on its cover.

As questions grow about the recovery, Obama needs some sector to increase spending.

Congress needs to help, but despite a growing chorus of economists calling for additional government stimulus, that doesn't look like it's going to happen. With midterm elections less than four months away, skittish and easily cowed lawmakers are terrified of adding to the national debt. Forget another stimulus package - which some economists are now prescribing - the Senate couldn't even pass a bill providing additional funds to states for unemployment and medical (FMAP) benefits.

Obama would almost certainly hold more sway over Congress if his approval numbers were solidly over 50 percent — and incumbents thought they were better off standing with the president than against him.

It's not just Capital Hill failing to respond. Obama went to the recent G20 Summit in Toronto practically begging foreign leaders to do more government spending, to keep priming the global economy. They declined. One result: other countries, growing slowly, have no money to buy our goods, which has now led to the largest monthly US trade deficit since 2008 - which is no help to our own recovery.

And businesses are also holding back. America's 500 largest non-financial companies are sitting on a staggering, and historic, $1.8 trillion in cash - yet US businesses are investing at their lowest level in more than 40 years. If they started putting that money to work, it would be like a targeted economic-stimulus package, potentially twice the size of the last year's federal Recovery Act.

CEOs and industry representatives are blaming the administration, in what Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria last week called "Obama's CEO problem." They complain that they are hampered by uncertainty over coming regulations - in the financial-industry bill, energy/climate-change legislation, and elsewhere - as well as expectations of tax increases to offset the rising federal deficit.

This is probably mostly bluster, to cover for their own "groupthink and herd behavior . . . with irrational exuberance now giving way to a period of equally irrational and widespread pessimism and caution," as Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote last week. But, Pearlstein and others warn, Obama needs to convince those businesses to start pumping those reserves into the economy — and the rift between Obama and the business community is clearly not helping him talk them into it.

Obama has also not been able to get the American people - in their role as consumer - to feel quite confident enough to increase spending. Consumer sentiment has climbed dramatically, personal income is back up, and mass layoffs have ceased, but rather than make the purchases they've been putting off for so long, families keep saving and paying down credit at historically high rates.
War president
In the first months of this year, the US (and what few allied forces are involved) made significant gains that seemed to justify Obama's December decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

Most notably, troops freed Marjah, a major southern stronghold for the Taliban, and began the process of building up local governance and infrastructure. That is the heart of the new strategy: expend the force necessary to clear out insurgents, and then make the citizenry happy so they will cooperate in keeping the Taliban out.

But as troops moved on to attempt the same process in Kandahar, this success proved illusory. Kandahar has been a bloody stalemate - and Taliban forces have reportedly returned to Marjah.

When Obama authorized the troop surge and aggressive counterinsurgency, he knew that there would be rough times ahead - and remember, we are still just ramping up. By August, the US will have over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Obama clearly believes that this strategy, if we stick to it, will result in a secure and self-governing country from which we can begin withdrawing troops a year from now, without triggering complete chaos and collapse.

But even if he's right - a questionable assumption - he needs Americans and our allies to stick with the plan through these rough times.

That was a lot easier when the war was off the front pages, as it had been earlier this year - when few people had any idea what was happening in Marjah and Kandahar, or whether the Karzai government is proving capable or inept. That was before General Stanley McChrystal's inopportune comments to a Rolling Stone reporter put Afghanistan back onto the headlines in mid-June. The increased coverage should continue in the coming months, as General David Petraeus takes over the effort, and the surge reaches its full effect.

Public support for the Afghanistan effort is declining; a new Harris Poll study warns that, with this war now in the spotlight, Americans are beginning to develop "the same negative feelings they once felt towards Iraq." Greater resistance back home, from the public and Congress, increases the perception in Afghanistan that the US will soon lose the will to stay. That, some analysts argue, will make it harder to win the vital cooperation of Afghani citizens and the Karzai government. Obama and the American people are at cross-purposes; if Obama can't get them behind him, he will forfeit the already slim odds of salvaging success there.
Below the surface
Both the recession and the wars are problems that Americans rightly blame on the Bush administration, yet expect action on from the current president. But what about the catastrophic destruction of the Gulf of Mexico and our southern shores, which began with the April 20 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig?

Polls suggest that Americans similarly do not lay the blame for the problem on Obama - with BP helpfully making itself an easy foil.

And, as with the economy and the wars, the sense of the problem's enormity has led people to expect a long-term effort - polling suggests that most people believe that, even if all goes well, we'll be cleaning up this mess for many months, or years.

That should give Obama some time to get it right - and it does seem that the oil spill has not harmed his approval ratings much, despite widespread disappointment in his response so far.

But this is a problem that will garner constant attention, and the public will be quicker to hold Obama responsible for each setback.

Plus, the disaster has exposed a troubling problem within the administration - the distance it still must go to repair the government agencies broken and neglected under eight years of Bush.

The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) was, clearly, not capable of effective oversight well over a year into Obama's tenure - and that was one office where the need for thorough reform had been well-identified and -documented.

If MMS was still a disaster, surely other, less-obvious problems remain. That means our country continually operates on the knife's edge of similar catastrophes, ready to erupt at any time - as the left has been warning through years of deregulation.
Forward momentum
Obama tried to use the oil catastrophe to reinvigorate the effort to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation - an effort that, so far, has demonstrated how little sway he has at the moment.

The same can be said for other Obama initiatives, including financial regulation, immigration reform, and state funding extensions.

All of these would have been easier to pass if the health-care-reform bill had been passed a year ago, as anticipated, rather than dragging on for another six months - pushing everything else that much closer to the midterm elections.

This may be one downside of Obama's calm, long-view navigation: the limitations on time in a Washington that moves on its own cycles.

There are also limitations to the public's patience. They have waited 18 months for Obama to make them feel better about the condition and direction of their country. Obama has more than two years before he seeks re-election, but less than four months before the perilous deadline of the November midterms - the outcome of which will determine what he can hope to accomplish moving forward.

The rocky road lying ahead, leading up to those elections, will make it all the more difficult to convince voters to make things easier for him.

To read the "Talking Politics" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein@phx.com.

Copyright © 2010 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group  Reprinted from The Boston Phoenix of July 14, 2010.
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