Last year, President Barack Obama issued a warning to Republicans. They had been ”politicking” instead of ”governing,” he said. ”Well, we can politick for three months,” he said. ”They forgot I’m pretty good at politicking.”
That was in August 2010. At the end of those three months, Republicans controlled the most seats in the House since the 1940s. Republicans did well for a lot of reasons. One of them was that the president is wrong: He isn’t all that good at politics.
He can be forgiven for thinking otherwise. He won the top prize in American politics, after all, and many people have talked about him as a phenomenal political talent. He had beaten the mighty Clinton machine in the Democratic primaries, which many people had considered impossible. And when he took office it wasn’t uncommon for liberals to compare him to Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt or even Abraham Lincoln. His speeches sent thrills up liberals’ legs. It was only natural that superlatives would be attached to someone who managed to go from being a state senator to president-elect in four years.
But take a closer look at Obama’s rise and a hole in his resume quickly becomes apparent: Obama never had to fight for and win the votes of people who don’t agree with him. Both his biggest political setback and his biggest political accomplishment — his defeat by Bobby Rush in a 2000 House primary and his victory over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 — came during struggles within a liberal universe.
He didn’t have to fight for moderate and conservative voters in the Senate election in Illinois in November 2004 because his first Republican opponent self-immolated in scandal and his second was Alan Keyes, a fringe figure who came from out of state to run.
Nor was Obama tested in the general election of 2008. To be sure, he showed impressive message discipline during that campaign. Even when he briefly fell behind Sen. John McCain in the late summer and many Democrats started to get nervous, he kept to his strategic plan. But he also had the most favorable set of circumstances for any out-party candidate for the presidency since 1932. The Republicans had held the White House for eight years, the incumbent was deeply unpopular, wages had been stagnant — and a financial crisis hit weeks before the election. The votes Obama needed fell into his lap.
Many of Obama’s predecessors had to learn how to appeal to broad electorates before they became president. George W. Bush had to beat an incumbent Democrat to become governor of Texas. Bill Clinton had to market himself in not-so-liberal Arkansas. The two recent presidents who most resemble Obama in not having had to prove themselves in this way are Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Neither is a happy portent, both having lost re- election bids.
A talented politician — like Reagan or Clinton — can instinctively grasp public sentiment, move public opinion and reframe arguments. They rally popular support. They command the moment. Obama does none of these things.
Even his most vaunted gift, that of oratory, has done him little good as president. He gave speech after speech about health care, including an address to a joint session of Congress. None of it made the public like the Democrats’ health- care plan more.
Obama could still win re-election. Maybe the economy will strengthen in time to help him. Maybe the public will recoil from the thought of giving Republicans unified control of the government again. But Republicans don’t need to worry that voters will be seduced by Obama’s charisma.
Liberals have been slowly waking up to this fact. Increasingly they’ve been asking what’s wrong with him. Is he too aloof? Too conciliatory? Some liberals would be dissatisfied with Obama even if he delivered single-payer health care. But part of their disappointment is that they expected Obama to usher in a new liberal era. Now they see that it’s not to be. The problem isn’t that Obama has lost his touch. He didn’t have it in the first place.
One thing Obama is gifted with is a preternatural self- confidence. In early 2010 Rep. Marion Berry, a Democrat from Arkansas, said the president had assured congressional Democrats that they wouldn’t face a bloodbath in the midterm elections like the one they had endured in 1994. The difference this time, Obama said, was that they had him. Berry mentioned the remarks as he announced his retirement. His seat is now held by a Republican.
RAMESH PONNURU is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.