Originally published in Politico
This article originally appeared in Politico on March 17, 2012.
If you believe Reuters and Pew, Barack Obama is in a strong, improving position to win reelection, with a 50 percent approval rating and a double digit lead over his likely opponent, Mitt Romney. If you believe CBS/New York Times and ABC/Washington Post, Obama has lost ground and has fallen back to even with Romney. It’s an unusual divergence, and a reminder that an electorate that has swung so wildly in the last two cycles remains cryptic.
But putting aside the horse-race, something seems to have been drained out of this presidency. Since the start of 2012, it has been curiously devoid of an economic agenda, preoccupied with interest group politics, deliberately unwilling to assert much of a long term priority list. The administration has spent inordinate time on two causes, mandating Catholic institutions to cover birth control in their employee insurance plans—an issue few Americans had stressed over prior to this year—and challenging state voter ID laws, which 70 percent of the country support.
Even if you deeply believe that on both issues, the administration is right and its critics are wrong-headed, it is impossible to argue that Obama gave much attention to either fight until recently. As a senator and presidential candidate, he offered no criticism of the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling that Indiana’s voter ID law was a legitimate means to preclude voter fraud (a ruling written by a liberal icon, John Paul Stevens). Nor did the Obama of 08 question the long-time practice of Catholic workplaces leaving contraceptives out of their employee benefits. Right or wrong, each fixation seems more an election year bow to his political base than a response to a tide of public urgency.
And the issues Obama did run on? Containing health-care costs is a goal that was shunted aside in 2009 in favor of universal coverage, and the White House has not come back to it. Climate change legislation was scrapped before this presidency saw its first fall leaves. Education reform has been de-emphasized, major entitlement reform shelved, campaign finance reform abandoned and dismissed as unilateral disarmament. The sharpest indictment of Wall Street’s predatory side is contained in an op-ed from a Goldman insider instead of in a formal Justice Department charge. The signature narrative of the brilliant speech at Osawattomie—the perils of class inequality—seems to have only one note: a restoration of pre Bush 43 tax rates for millionaires.
An administration that touted its capacity to alter the culture in Washington has inhaled the most primal instinct of that culture—a willingness to deflect hard challenges to a future date uncertain. As a result, a swing voter contemplating Obama has to weigh whether the current inertia is a tactical dodge to avoid handing Republicans fresh targets; a camouflage for a decidedly more liberal posture in a second term; or a concession that the nature of a center-right country has not changed and that the boldness of 2008 was misplaced. The fact that not one of those options inspires is another reason this campaign is far from over.