Dwindling popularity

A year into his office, Barack Obama is facing a possible tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. This Tuesday, Massachusetts will hold a special election to fill the Senate seat that belonged to Senator Edward M Kennedy before he succumbed to cancer last August. Massachusetts is an overwhelmingly Democratic state, but the party’s heir apparent, attorney general Martha Coakley, appears at best tied with her little-known Republican challenger, state Senator Scott Brown.

A Coakley loss would be a nightmare for Democrats, not only for its symbolism, but because it would imperil the passage at long last of Obama’s signature health care reform bill. Hence the potential tragedy: the death of health care champion Ted Kennedy could conceivably lead to the historic measure’s bizarre demise.

Some of the blame lies with Coakley: she was slow to campaign in earnest. But her woes also have to do with the deeper forces bedevilling Barack Obama as he completes his first year in office. Like Obama, Coakley finds herself caught between conservative anger and liberal disillusionment.

As a result, it appears possible that a strong Republican turnout and a weak Democratic one will combine to hand Coakley — and, by extension, Obama himself — a reeling blow. Which is why Obama is making last-ditch campaign stop in Boston.

Even if a health care debacle is averted, Obama won’t be in the clear. The national political currents that have shaped the Massachusetts showdown are sure to carry on well into 2010. Take the right wing: after health care, Obama’s upcoming agenda items seem sure to further inflame such populist-conservative passions.

Next up could be a bill to address global warming, something the right denies is even a problem. There’s also been talk of a new push to reform the country’s immigration laws, a move that could grant amnesty to some illegal immigrants — political nitroglycerine on the nativist right.

But Obama can’t simply take shelter under his party’s left wing. There is no room for him at that inn. The health care bill’s passage will come with outraged cries that Obama sold out his core supporters. Liberals like the former Democratic party chairman Howard Dean have argued that a health bill with no public option provision which forces private insurers to compete with the government is worse than no bill at all.

As for Obama’s surge of 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan, the powerful Democratic appropriations committee chairman David Obey speaks for many a liberal when he calls it ‘a fool’s errand.’ It’s a stunning turn of events for a president who many progressives believed was their saviour and would usher in a new era of bold liberal activism.
Treacherous grip
At the moment, this grip appears treacherous indeed for Obama. The latest polling from Gallup shows him with a meagre 49 per cent approval rating, with 45 per cent of Americans disapproving of his performance, down from a 66-27 split in early May. But the middle can be a good place to be and Obama may yet escape the dreaded left-right pincer.
Consider the example of Bill Clinton. Two years into his presidency, Clinton appeared ruined. Republicans stampeded in the 1994 midterm elections to capture the House and Senate, leaving Clinton to argue for his own relevance. But Clinton understood that the Republicans had benefited from a public perception that he had lurched to the left on health care and gays in the military.

Clinton began his comeback by forcefully taking on unsympathetic Republican rivals such as Newt Gingrich. But he also ‘triangulated,’ to use the word made famous by his adviser, Dick Morris, against his party’s left wing. Clinton balanced the federal budget, signed a welfare reform bill and even famously declared in his 1995 State of the Union speech that “the era of big government is over.”

The more liberals brayed about these moves, the more Clinton’s popularity seemed to grow. Clinton came to understand that a quarrelsome left can be a Democratic president’s friend. It can insulate him from the conservative charge that he was in the left’s hip pocket and pushing the margins of political debate leftward, thereby expanding the centre in which a president can operate.

There’s reason to believe Obama agrees with this. In 2008, Obama swept liberals off their feet with his oratory, but he has always been a moderate pragmatist. He campaigned on a pledge to send more troops to Afghanistan, put forth a less ambitious health care plan than did Hillary Clinton and declined to support repealing all of Bush’s tax cuts.

This is, in essence, triangulation. And there are already new signs of it in talk of a potentially scaled-back approach to climate change and Obama’s new proposal for a special tax on the profits of big banks, an idea that frustrates House liberals pushing a plan to tax at 50 per cent the bonuses of employees at banks that took federal bailout money last year.

If triangulation is so brilliant, why isn’t it delivering Obama to popularity the way it did for Clinton? The reason lies beyond the parameters of political strategy. No president confronted with 10 per cent unemployment, plus a bloody war in a faraway land, can expect to defy the laws of political gravity. But should the economy turn around, Obama may find that by drawing noisy critics on both the left and right he will, as they say in the movies, have them just where he wants them.

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