We know Barack Obama is good at least one thing: getting Barack Obama elected president of the United States. How good he is at being president of the United States is a subject of considerable debate.
A less debatable proposition: He is just plain awful at running a political party.
People often forget that among the many formal roles the president has — commander in chief, first diplomat, etc. — he is also the leader of his own party. And in that role, he stinks.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 2008, Obama was supposed to herald a new progressive era, the harbinger of a new New Deal. He flipped several solid red states blue — or at least purple — and many Democrats, led by Obama himself, believed that a permanent realignment had arrived.
Then-candidate Obama, fresh on his return from speaking to an adoring crowd of Berliners, even reportedly told Democratic representatives that his candidacy “is the moment, as Nancy (Pelosi) noted, that the world is waiting for.”
Confident that history was on his side, Obama ran Washington on a partisan basis, using solid Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to ram through Obamacare. It was the most partisan major piece of social legislation in a century.
The most interesting thing about Obamacare, however, is that it was never popular. President Obama simply couldn’t sell it. From March 2009 to March 2010, he delivered on average a bit more than one speech or statement on health care per week, including major addresses to Congress and the nation and numerous town halls and other events around the USA. And yet, despite widespread rumors of his oratorical skill, the American people never bought it.
That should have been a sign.
In 2010, retiring Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry warned the president that Obamacare felt like a replay of the disastrous “HillaryCare” effort of 1993 that led to a historic 54-seat Democratic loss in the House of Representatives and put Newt Gingrich in the speaker’s chair.
Obama scoffed at the suggestion, according to Berry: “Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.” He was right. The Democrats lost 63 House seats in 2010.
It’s true that Obama won re-election in 2012. Again, he’s good at running campaigns that are all about him. The problem is that ability doesn’t rub off on his presidency or his party, which is ironic given that in 2008 he insisted that his ability to manage a presidential campaign proved that he had the management experience to be president. He was wrong.
According to a lengthy report in the Washington Post, Senate Democratic operatives were exasperated with the president’s reluctance to help his party’s candidates get elected in this week’s midterms. He tasked his lawyers with monkey-wrenching efforts for Obama to fundraise for Sen. Harry Reid’s Senate Majority PAC.
“We were never going to get on the same page,” David Krone, Reid’s chief of staff, told the Post. “We were beating our heads against the wall.”
Capitol Hill Democrats felt this was just the latest example of the president acting as if he were the head of his personal Obama party, rather than the Democratic Party. And this was before he said — deliberately — that a vote for Democrats was a vote for his policies, a statement that caused enough Democratic forehead-slapping to register on the Richter scale.
In Tuesday’s wake, any talk of an Obama-fueled realignment seems delusional. Young voters have soured on the president. Hispanics didn’t show up. Contrary to a lot of spinning early election night, this wasn’t an “anti-incumbent wave”; it was an anti-Democratic, or more properly, an anti-Obama wave.
The GOP captured Senate seats in Iowa and Colorado, each of which voted for Obama twice. The governor’s race in deep-blue Maryland, where Obama campaigned, went to the Republican as did Obama’s home state of Illinois and liberal Massachusetts. Incumbent Republicans triumphed almost everywhere while incumbent Democrats lost almost everywhere.
When the next Senate convenes, 25 more Democrats who voted for Obamacare will be gone and the GOP’s majority in the House will be so big and solid that NBC’s Chuck Todd says Democrats won’t be able to recapture it until at least 2022.
But Obama is still the president, which is apparently all he ever cared about.
Jonah Goldberg is a columnist for Tribune News Media.