John B. Judis: The Unnecessary Fall of Barack Obama

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[John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.]

On April 14, 2009, as Barack Obama’s standing in the polls was beginning to slip, and as Tea Party demonstrators were amassing in Washington for tax day protests, the president gave a lengthy address at Georgetown University explaining the “five pillars” of his economic policies. The speech was intended to promote a memorable slogan for Obama’s program that would evoke comparisons with Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal, Franklin Rooseveltind’s New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

Obama’s contribution was to be the New Foundation. “We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity–a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest,” he declared. Obama would repeat the phrase seven times that day and on many more occasions over the next months. At Obama’s private White House dinner with presidential historians that June, the historians were no more impressed than the public with the New Foundation as a slogan. “I don’t think it’s going to work,” Robert Dallek warned. Doris Kearns Goodwin said it sounded “like a woman’s girdle.”

One of these historians might have been able to forewarn Obama that the slogan had been unsuccessfully deployed by a Democratic president once before. In his 1979 State of the Union address, Jimmy Carter began, “Tonight, I want to examine in a broad sense the state of our American Union–how we are building a new foundation for a peaceful and a prosperous world.” Carter would use the phrase five times in the speech, including in its conclusion, where he asked members of Congress to join him “in building that new foundation.” Like Obama’s effort, the phrase inspired, at most, a few underwear jokes and was then forgotten....

To be sure, there are a number of very specific reasons why Carter and Obama landed in political trouble. Both men contended with rising unemployment–Carter with rampant inflation as well–and voters’ approval of a president and his party tend to track closely with changes in the economy. Carter faced friction in his own party and the rise of a powerful business lobby, and Obama has dealt with a Republican Party that has frustrated his dreams of a post-partisan presidency. Yet the most important reason for their difficulties–evident in their inept attempts to brand their programs–has been an inability to develop a politics that resonates with the public....

Politicians, such as Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, who found a way of using populism’s appeal during downturns have enjoyed success, while those who have spurned it have suffered accordingly. If, in circumstances like the present one, you don’t develop a populist politics, your adversaries will use populism to define you as an enemy of the people. That’s what Carter discovered during the stagflation of the late ’70s. And that’s what has happened in the last 20 months of the Great Recession to Barack Obama and to the Democratic Party he leads.

Obama took office with widespread popular support, even among Republicans, and some of his first efforts, including the $800 billion stimulus, initially enjoyed strong public favor. But that wide appeal began to dissipate by the late spring of 2009. Disillusion with Obama fueled the November defeat of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia. By January 2010, it was a crucial factor in Republican Scott Brown’s astonishing victory over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts.

In the postmortem debate over these defeats, some Democrats have blamed Obama’s dogged pursuit of health care reform while the economy was hemorrhaging jobs. That may have been a factor, but the real damage was done earlier. What doomed Obama politically was the way he dealt with the financial crisis in the first six months of his presidency. In an atmosphere primed for a populist backlash, he allowed the right wing to define the terms....

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