President Obama’s response to the catastrophic political failures of his freshman year in office is to fight harder for more of the same. Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett made the point explicitly on Sunday, asserting that the White House is “not hitting a reset button at all.” That reflects the kind of political savvy that handed the safest Democratic Senate seat in America to a Republican.
Mr. Obama seems unaware that he is part of the problem. The president credited Scott Brown’s historic Senate-race victory in Massachusetts last week to the same voter frustration that swept him into office in 2008. The glitch in that worldview is that Mr. Brown ran explicitly against the Obama agenda.
Mr. Obama’s response to comparisons to 1994, when Democrats lost control of both the House and Senate, is that “the big difference here and in ‘94 was you’ve got me.” Mr. Obama certainly is making a big difference, but none that should give comfort to his party.
Gallup polling data show he is the most polarizing first-year president since records have been kept, significantly more so than Bill Clinton, the previous record holder. Mr. Obama’s approval rating dropped faster than Mr. Clinton’s in his first year, and generic ballots for the 2010 race show Republicans in an as good or better position compared to 1994 or 2006, when Congress last changed hands. A Fox News poll from January 2006 found a 51 percent disapproval rate for the then-Republican Congress. The same poll this month shows disapproval with the Democratic Congress at 63 percent.
The White House claims it hasn’t reached out enough to the American people, but the real problem is that Mr. Obama’s vaunted oratorical skills have had a short shelf life. In the administration’s first months, the president regularly took to the airwaves to push his agenda, attempting to mimic President Reagan’s effective use of television to circumvent congressional roadblocks. However, networks began to push back when it became clear that giving up valuable prime-time slots to Mr. Obama meant ratings death. Now the half-serious story making the rounds is that the State of the Union speech was scheduled so as not to conflict - or compete - with the premiere of the final season of “Lost.” The president’s relentless reliance on teleprompters likewise has become a national joke, building the impression that America elected a reader when it needs a leader.
The Obama team is reaching out to 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe for damage control, which suggests that since they cannot govern, they might as well campaign. Mr. Plouffe counsels pushing ahead vigorously on health care, which would doom many Democratic members of Congress. He suggests that the government “create” jobs, which it claims to be doing even as unemployment swells. He says the Democrats should not accept any “lectures” on spending, even though last year’s $1.42 trillion deficit tripled the record set in 2008. Mr. Plouffe advises that Democrats “run great campaigns,” which is the equivalent of a coach telling his team that the way to win is to score more points. He also helpfully cautions against “bed-wetting,” an echo of Mr. Obama’s admonition not to get “wee-wee’d up.” Apparently Democrats see bladder control as the key to victory.
Mr. Obama is in a state of denial. His party’s losses in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts all sent the message that the American people want the party in power to govern more wisely. For the time being, Democrats still enjoy substantial margins in both houses, but their agenda is stalled because it’s painfully out of step with what the country wants. Mr. Obama pledges to keep on fighting, but pushing harder for ruinously bad policies is not populism; it is political suicide.