As a candidate, Barack Obama set expectations that he could not meet as president
Yet signs of disappointment abound. According to Gallup, his overall approval rating is anemic, and strong majorities disapprove of the way he is handling health care and the economy. Another recent poll shows an even split on whether the country would have been better off if he had lost to John McCain.
The president's basic problem is that he set expectations that he could not meet.
On the night he clinched the 2008 Democratic nomination he declared that future generations would remember "that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." All politicians indulge in tall talk, which voters wisely tend to discount. Obama was different because millions believed that he could actually do these things.
Even after his election, he kept raising hopes. In January 2009, his transition team predicted that the stimulus bill would cap unemployment at 8 percent. By year's end, it had hit 10 percent. White House aides insisted that the measure prevented joblessness from going even higher. Whatever economic arguments they could make for that claim, their political case was lame. Voters roll their eyes whenever a politician pleads, "Hey, things are lousy but they would have been worse without me!"
On climate change, the president's beautiful language came under assault by a mob of brutal facts. Despite his international popularity, he could not get other countries to overlook their own interests, so he came out of the Copenhagen summit with a moonshadow of an agreement. Rightly or wrongly, record-cold temperatures in much of the country made it harder to stir fears of global warming. The costs of action became clearer as Congress considered climate-change legislation, and the public started to turn more skeptical.
On health care, likewise, the legislative process laid bare the inevitable economic and political trade-offs. The president talked about expanding access, improving quality and controlling costs. Those goals are noble, but serious policy analysts know that you cannot achieve all three at the same time. If and when the president signs a bill, many Americans will worry about limited access, lower quality, or higher costs.
Several times during the campaign, the president promised that the passage of health legislation would be a high-minded deliberative process visible to everyone via C-SPAN. Instead, he struck bargains with industry groups and lawmakers made deals with one another, all behind closed doors. David Axelrod, the president's chief strategist, merely shrugged when a reporter asked about the congressional dealmaking: "That's the way it has been. That's the way it will always be."
Many political observers would agree with Axelrod, but that's beside the point. If Democrats had wanted a nominee with experience in "the way it has been," they would have chosen Hillary Clinton. They turned to Barack Obama because he promised to be different. As he told a crowd early in 2008, "we are tired of business-as-usual in Washington, we are hungry for change, and we are ready to believe again." By casually accepting business as usual, Axelrod was repudiating the entire rationale of the president's campaign.
It is still early in President Obama's tenure, and his political fortunes could change again. Improvements in the economy or triumphs in international relations could bring his approval ratings back up and limit Republican gains in this November's midterm elections. But the president will never completely recapture the spirit of hope and change that accompanied his inauguration.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College. He, along with James W. Ceaser and Andrew E. Busch, authored "Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics" (Lanham, MD Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).