Barely six months into his presidency, Barack Obama seems to be driving south into that political speed trap known as Carter Country: a sad-sack landscape in which every major initiative meets not just with failure but with scorn from political allies and foes alike. According to a July 13 CBS News poll, the once-unassailable president’s approval rating now stands at 57 percent, down 11 points from April. Half of Americans think the recession will last an additional two years or more, 52 percent think Obama is trying to “accomplish too much,” and 57 percent think the country is on the “wrong track.”
From a lousy cap-and-trade bill awaiting death in the Senate to a health-care reform agenda already weak in the knees to the failure of the stimulus to deliver promised jobs and economic activity, what once looked like a hope-tastic juggernaut is showing all the horsepower of a Chevy Cobalt. “Give it to me!” the president egged on a Michigan audience last week, pledging to “solve problems” and not “gripe” about the economic hand he was dealt.
Despite such bravura, Obama must be furtively reviewing the history of recent Democratic administrations for some kind of road map out of his post-100-days ditch.
So far, he seems to be skipping the chapter on Bill Clinton and his generally free-market economic policies and instead flipping back to the themes and comportment of Jimmy Carter. Like the 39th president, Obama has inherited an awful economy, dizzying budget deficits and a geopolitical situation as promising as Kim Jong Il’s health. Like Carter, Obama is smart, moralistic and enamored of alternative energy schemes that were nonstarters back when America’s best-known peanut farmer was installing solar panels at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Like Carter, Obama faces as much effective opposition from his own party’s left wing as he does from an ardent but diminished GOP.
And perhaps most important, as with Carter, his specific policies are genuinely unpopular. The auto bailout — which, incidentally, is illegal, springing as it has from a fund specifically earmarked for financial institutions — has been reviled from the get-go, with opposition consistently polling north of 60 percent. Majorities have said no to bank bailouts and to cap and trade if it would make electricity significantly more expensive.
According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, more than 80 percent are concerned that health-care reform will increase costs or diminish the quality of care. Even as two House committees passed a reform bill last week, the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warned that the proposal “significantly expands the federal responsibility for health-care costs” and dramatically raises the cost “curve.” This sort of voter and expert feedback can’t be comforting to the president.
As writers who inveighed against last year’s GOP candidate and called George W. Bush’s presidency a “disaster,” we’re equal-opportunity critics. As taxpayers with children and hence some small, almost certainly unrecoverable stake in this country’s future (not to mention that of General Motors, Chrysler and AIG), we write with skin in the game and the fear that our current leader will indeed start busting out the 1970s cardigans.