Rupert Cornwell: A bad week for Obama – but the worst is yet to come

Out of America: The President has tried to do too much, too soon – and is paying the price in the ratings
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The Independent Online

A young and inexperienced Democrat is in the White House. His ambitious bid to reform health care is in a shambles. His popularity is plunging, his party faces heavy losses at upcoming mid-term Congressional elections. His presidency, in short, seems in meltdown. Sound familiar? It should. Barack Obama's plight is similar to the mess in which a certain Bill Clinton found himself at a roughly similar moment of his first term, in 1994. The difference is that, if anything, Obama's mess is worse.

This has been a simply dreadful week for the White House. It began with the shock of losing Ted Kennedy's old seat in Massachusetts, depriving Democrats of the 60-vote super-majority needed in the Senate to overcome a filibuster of the health bill on which Congress has been toiling virtually since Obama took office. It continued with a scarcely less stunning ruling by the conservative-dominated Supreme Court, allowing corporations and wealthy special interest groups to fund unlimited ad campaigns against candidates in elections – read, against Democrats in November's mid-terms.

Worst of all was the panic that gripped Democrats on Capitol Hill, fearful of being swept away by the political storm. This mass attack of the jitters not only jeopardises other major Obama reforms, such as climate change legislation, but it might even torpedo the confirmation of Ben Bernanke to a second term at the helm of the Federal Reserve (yes, the same Bernanke whose bold action to counter the financial and credit crisis has just earned him the accolade of Time magazine's Man of the Year for 2009). When there's the stench of smoke in the theatre, no hero is safe in the stampede for the exits.

Obama's problem lies in that iron rule of politics: power lies above all in the perception of power. That perception in turn depends on popularity, and a new poll this weekend puts his approval rating at 45 per cent, the lowest of any recent president so early into his term. Obama's strategy on coming to office was to give the Democrat-controlled Congress a long leash. The beast may now break free of the leash completely.

In retrospect, of course it is obvious Obama made mistakes, just as Clinton made mistakes in his first term. Unlike the Clinton White House, this one is mostly scandal-free. But it, too, misjudged the public mood – right now as angry as it's ever been. The public wanted a laser's focus on the economy and jobs. What it got was healthcare reform – a noble and long overdue goal to be sure, but not one that would do much to revive the economy in the short term.

Even more than their Clinton predecessors, the Obama people have believed their own rhetoric, overestimating their ability to change the way Washington works. Every new president vows to cleanse the Augean stables. On the campaign trail, this president made that pledge more eloquently, more inspiringly than ever before. The disillusion of many who voted for him (a bare 15 months ago) is correspondingly greater.

The fault is not entirely Obama's. His advisers could be forgiven for underestimating the bloody-mindedness of a Republican opposition bent on using every stalling device offered by America's sclerotic legislative system to block his initiatives. But the past is the past. How can Obama right the ship?

In an era of popular fury, his initial response has understandably been to become more populist himself. Hence his declaration of war on the big banks, held as primarily responsible for the financial and economic meltdown – but saved by taxpayers' money from the consequences of the folly that caused so much grief for everyone else.

"There's going to be a fight, I guarantee you, when we start... trying to change the rules, so when these guys make dumb decisions you don't end up having to foot the bill," Obama declared at a town hall meeting on Friday afternoon in Elyria, Ohio. No longer professor president but warrior president. His calculation is clear, and probably correct – that not even Republicans will dare block the financial regulatory reform now taking shape on Capitol Hill from becoming law.

But sooner or later leaders must lead, not join the stampede for the exits. The comparison with Clinton is instructive. Obama, for the time being at least, is tacking left, not least to assuage liberal Democrats angered by delays and concessions to party conservatives that have probably doomed healthcare reform. But then what?

In 1994, Clinton and the Democrats actually lost control of both Senate and House to the resurgent Republicans led by Newt Gingrich. The presidency was still "relevant", Clinton was forced to plead at one point. Obama has not yet plumbed such depths, and the odds are still that his party will have majorities in both chambers. But instead of tacking left, Clinton moved to the centre. He scaled back over-ambitious liberal projects and stole popular Republican ideas such as welfare reform. He even fulfilled the ultimate dream of Republican fiscal conservatives (how quaint that term sounds today!) of balancing the budget. And the strategy worked. Clinton outmanoeuvred Gingrich and, in 1996, just two years after his mid-term humiliation, easily won a second term. Today he is regarded as a competent and broadly successful president.

Obama may have to follow a similar path, if history is to deliver a similar verdict. For one thing, he is not a natural populist. His style is deliberative, rational and analytical. America is an angry country right now. But as he well knows, it remains a conservative one, instinctively suspicious of government and which likes its change incremental. It's hard to deny that Obama has tried to do too much, too soon, at a moment when economic woes make Americans, if anything, warier of sweeping change. Here, too, Obama is worse placed than Clinton. The recession of 1991/1992 was shallow, and over by the time Clinton took office. Recovery from the recent economic near-death experience will be long and painful. Obama's political nadir is probably yet to come.