Thursday, May 16, 2013

Obama's Katrina Moment

***Update: Several folks have contacted me insisting that Obama received 53% of the vote in 2012 and that he won by over 9 million votes... Newsflash folks, those were Obama's numbers in 2008. This piece makes specific reference to Obama's re-election in 2012. 

Original Post:
It has been a rough week for the Obama Administration. From Benghazi to obtaining reporters' phone records to the IRS admitting that it targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny, the press is in a frenzy and many are questioning Obama’s fate.  If President Obama does not soon regain control of the narrative, he is likely to suffer the same fate as his predecessor – a collapse in public confidence and a vastly diminished second term. To understand President Obama’s situation we need to explore a little presidential theory and some recent presidential history.

While still a college professor Woodrow Wilson wrote of the presidency, “Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him.” Wilson believed that presidents could rely on inspiring and soaring rhetoric to win over the public and overpower Congress. What Wilson failed to contemplate was what happens once a president loses the admiration and confidence of the public. George W. Bush provided the answer to that question in late 2005.

The day after Election Day 2004, President Bush confidently stated he had earned political capital in the election and he intended to spend it. It was a bold statement for a man who been reelected with a bare 51% majority. And history tells us that Bush had anything but a successful second term. His ambitious plans for Social Security reform foundered, he was thwarted in his efforts to achieve immigration reform, and much of his policy decisions regarding Iraq and Afghanistan were made via his use of the veto to overrule Congress. The veto is a powerful weapon, but it’s a weapon wielded in weakness, not in strength (strong Presidents need not resort to the veto). In November 2006, Republicans lost control of the House and Senate, and Bush’s political capital was nowhere to be found.

What happened to Bush between Election Day 2004 and the Democratic victories in the 2006 election is a cautionary tale that the Obama Administration would do well to consider. It’s debatable whether Bush’s reelection truly bestowed any political capital upon him. Fully 49% of the electorate voted for someone else and the Bush election team had made a concerted effort to define John Kerry as an unfit leader and political “flip-flopper.” Election 2004 was as much a John Kerry rejection as it was a Bush reelection. Bush had presented himself as a competent manager and a reliable leader – a stark contrast to Kerry. That image collapsed in spectacular fashion in latter half of 2005.

In late August of that year, hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans. What followed were weeks and months of media coverage of looting, violence, displaced people, and thousands stranded in the Superdome. As coverage of the post-storm situation continued, criticism of the
government’s response mounted. Criticism tended to focus on problems of mismanagement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and a perceived lack of leadership. In our book, American Government and Popular Discontent, my coauthor Steve Schier and I argue that to lead effectively, contemporary presidents need support from federal courts and Congress, the steady allegiance of the public, and accordance with contemporary public opinion about the proper size and scope of government. Bush had argued for a scaled back government, yet Katrina undermined that argument. Fairly or not President Bush became the focal point for public dissatisfaction with the Katrina response and his image as a competent and reliable manager collapsed. His approval rating fell into the 30 percent range and never recovered. Then in October, the Special Counsel appointed to investigate the possible outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame indicted Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Chief of Staff of Vice President Dick Cheney, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Bush was finished. The President lost the admiration and confidence of the country – he did not get it back.

This brings us to President Obama’s current troubles. and the similarities between Obama's 2012 reelection and George W. Bush's 2004 reelection.  Like Bush, Obama was reelected by the same 51% bare majority. Obama’s narrow popular vote victory was bolstered by a more substantial Electoral College victory. Like Bush, Obama was rejected by 49% of the electorate and exit polls showed a majority of voters favored full or partial repeal of the President’s signature legislative accomplishment – health care reform.  Much like the Bush 2004 strategy, the Obama campaign spent millions defining Mitt Romney as an unfit leader. Like 2004, 2012 was as much a Romney rejection as an Obama reelection. Obama was portrayed as the reliable and competent manager who understood there was a positive role for government to play in improving people’s lives. If Obama is not careful, that image will collapse in spectacular fashion.

When House Republicans decided to reopen investigations into the White House and State Department response to the attacks on our embassy in Benghazi few thought it would inflict any serious damage to the President, though it was attracting press attention. Then came an admission from the IRS that it had unfairly singled out conservative groups for scrutiny during the 2012 campaign. Suddenly the press had two scandals to focus on. Then the Associated Press "wiretap" story made landfall. In April and May of 2012 the Department Of Justice secretly obtained two months of phone records for roughly two dozen AP reporters (no wires were actually tapped). It is suspected that the phone records were seized as part of an investigation into national security leaks. With the emergence of a third scandal, the press has seemingly turned on an administration that it had long treated with kid gloves.

The initial response from the White House appears to be “the President had no knowledge” of the IRS audits, the Justice Department wiretaps, or changes to Benghazi talking points. The White House is engaged in a confusing two-step – the President is responsible for the executive branch, but he is not responsible for the actions or misdeeds of executive branch employees or officers – actions and misdeeds that he did not know about. In reality, it makes no difference whether Obama was directly responsible for or knowledgeable of any of the actions alleged. The catastrophe of the Katrina aftermath was very much the fault of then Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, and FEMA Director Michael Brown. The Valerie Plame investigation never revealed any evidence that members of the Bush Administration illegally leaked her identity to the press. But pas is often the case in politics, perception mattered more than reality and the buck stopped with President Bush.

The perception emerging now is that President Obama is a detached bystander in his own Administration. Rather than embracing his role as Chief Executive he is otherwise engaged – too busy with the permanent campaign. Worse, the IRS and Justice Department wiretap stories undermine a central tenet the President’s agenda – that government can be a trusted and competent partner in improving lives. These scandals bolster conservative arguments about government as a malevolent force that should be constrained. It certainly does not help Obama that the IRS will play a central role in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Obama's best hope may be the GOP. When Bush was in meltdown in 2005, Democrats were wise to stand back and just watch the President implode. As a result, it was not possible for the Bush Administration to simply dismiss the accusations and investigations as political theatre. But Republicans are so eager to see Obama weakened that they have jumped headlong into the fray - even tossing the impeachment word around. If the GOP overplays its hand, they'll play right into Obama's and provide him with political cover. The next week or two will be critical. Ezra Klein is already arguing that the scandals are falling apart. Perhaps, but I think that's more a case of wishful thinking at this point. He seems to think that there must be direct involvement at the top for these scandals to have an impact. I don't think that's correct, especially if we're talking about public confidence in Obama's leadership and his argument about government as a positive force for change.

This is Obama’s Katrina moment, if he cannot regain control of the narrative then he will face the same loss of public confidence suffered by President Bush. If that happens, Obama will spend the next 3 years relying on little more than the power of the veto to influence the agenda of others. He's already at a disadvantage owing to GOP control of the House. Much as 35% of the public stood with George W. Bush until the very end, Obama can expect to maintain the support of a very committed segment of the public, and they will defend him no matter what. But legacies are not built on the cult-like adherence of a passionate and deluded minority. Just ask George W. Bush.