Obama is beginning to flounder

By Rob Roper 

Rob Roper

We’ve been hearing it for nearly three years now, but the intensity of the charge is beginning to increase. The president whining some iteration of, “I inherited this problem (whatever the problem happens to be) from George W. Bush.” This blame game appears to be emerging as a central strategy for Obama’s bid for a second term. However, it’s a losing strategy.

I can see the commercial running in September/October 2012 so clearly in my mind: A montage of Obama’s “I inherited…” quotes, complete with dates and places of the statements spanning his first term. The sound fades out and a voice over says quite simply, “If Barack Obama couldn’t handle what he inherited in 2009, one thing is for certain…. He can’t handle what he’ll inherit from himself in 2013, because it’s worse.” Fade to black as the grizzly economic and unemployment statistics from Obama’s tenure roll across the screen.

It’s time for somebody else – anybody else — because the guy we’ve got obviously can’t do the job.

Why would Americans ever rehire someone to fix the serious problems our country faces after that candidate has essentially admitted as a central theme of his re-election campaign that he can’t fix them? It makes no sense.

But what does?

Unfortunately for the president, not much. He can’t run on his record, a point that even his own supporters have conceded. This brings another interesting potential strategy for Republicans: running against a “do-nothing” president.

Harry Truman famously turned his dismal poll numbers around and upset John Dewey on election day by running against what he called the Republican “do nothing” congress. If Republican’s flipped that message on Obama in 2012, it would put the president in a heck of a box.

The ammunition is surely there. Obama never offered a plan during the debt limit debate. Recall the director of the Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf’s cutting remark that, “We don’t estimate speeches.” I believe this fact is playing a big roll in the president’s falling poll numbers. It doesn’t help that Harry Reid and Senate Democrats haven’t passed a budget (which they are constitutionally required to do each year) in over 800 days.  Meanwhile, Obama is closing in on 80 rounds of golf since being elected – a number he will probably exceed during his third vacation at the $20 million Blue Heron estate in Martha’s Vineyard this week. Neither image contrasts well with middle class citizens struggling to make ends meet in this economy.

So, what could Obama do to defend himself from the charge of “do nothing” lack of leadership? Remind voters that he pushed through a healthcare bill that a majority of Americans don’t like, and my very well be unconstitutional? Remind voters about his nearly one billion-dollar stimulus bill and all its “shovel ready” jobs that kept unemployment below 8% (or not).

By labeling the president as a do-nothing, Republicans could force the president to run on a record that he does not want to run on, or accept the premise as correct. Neither option would be appealing for Obama.

The only other path for the president to pursue is a scorched earth, negative campaign against whoever wins the Republican nomination. Consensus seems to be that this is what he’s going to do. But, this is not without serious problems either. The Obama of 2008 ran against this very kind of politics. He promised to heal the country and usher in a post-racial, post-partisan America. He was going to change the way Washington worked, and this was the “Hope and Change” a lot of his non-partisan young and independent supporters bought into. If he loses them through a craven, worst-of-Washington-politics type campaign, he loses the election.

Sebastian Junger, in his best selling book The Perfect Storm about the demise of the swordfish boat Andrea Gail, defines foundering as “to cave in, sink, fail utterly, collapse.” He applies this to what he imagines is happening to the doomed vessel and its captain:

“The rising sea state allows [Captain] Billy [Tyne] less and less leeway to maneuver. If he maintains enough speed to steer, he beats the boat to pieces. If he slows down, he loses rudder control… now the only choice left is whether to go upsea or down, and the only outcome is whether they sink of float. There’s not much in between.”

It sounds a lot like the pickle candidate Obama finds himself in today. Not a comforting metaphor for a man who is clearly in over his head.