I think we’ve all been there at some point during our teens – overwhelmed by a consuming romantic attraction. Whether it’s due to the ravages of unfamiliar hormones or the suggestion of a sappy song, the object of one’s desire takes a place only slightly lower than Helen of Troy – placed on a pedestal and endowed will all manner of virtues and attractions. Nothing else matters.
Our elders call it infatuation.
And of course, when said object of desire turns out to be no more than human, the crushing disappointment is all the greater. It’s not unusual for the once-besotted suitor to conclude that he or she hates the other, hates with a passion approaching what was love just a few days earlier.
Two years ago, much of the United States voting public became infatuated with Barack Obama. And we are seeing the emotional distancing now.
It’s not hard to see why so many were enthralled by Obama, although the scope of the popular delusion was truly remarkable. For a nation exhausted by the rancor of the Bush years, two wars and angry protests, a dysfunctional Congress, and a financial crisis, Obama’s cool, articulate panache, his promise of a post-partisan healing, were enormously attractive. Independents were won over by his professed willingness to reach across the aisle, to leave partisanship behind in the quest for solutions to the nation’s problems. Obama’s case was aided by the lightness of his resume – with no real history to reveal his true inclinations, he was a blank slate on which independents drew the picture that suited their wishes. The signs were there, obviously, in his writings, in his associations, in his voting record, such as it was, but it was all given scant attention either by a media keenly attracted to him or by voters who suspended their natural skepticism en masse.
Liberals, of course, flocked to his banner. Here was a man who validated all they wanted to believe about themselves – intelligent, well-spoken, dedicated to the fight against privilege on behalf of the little guy. And to make it perfect, he was black! For liberals, supporting Obama was in itself proof positive that they were not the racists that, at least in their own eyes, conservatives are. And of course, he thrilled the young who came out in droves for him, and African Americans who have been loyal to him throughout.
The adulation was so widespread it made conservatives feel like they had been denied their share of the Kool-Aid. Tough newsmen confessed to feeling a tingling up their legs in his presence; the staid Norwegians celebrated his election by awarding him the Nobel Peace prize, apparently for no greater achievement than ridding the world of George Bush. And Obama, who evidently has an ego the size of a house, rode the wave of it all.
Fast forward to 2010. Obama’s legislative success has been substantial – health care reform, the stimulus, the 2010 budget, financial regulatory reform, a strong attempt at cap and trade. Big stuff. And yet, Democrats are looking at a by-election defeat of historical proportions. There are two reasons for this: Republicans are passionate about turning back the Obama agenda, and Democrats are, well, unenthused.
Independents are the big fall-away of the Obama political juggernaut. Once strongly in his court, they now give him an approval rating in the 30’s range. They have been appalled and frightened by the lightning-fast acceleration of spending and debt this administration has created. They became progressively less supportive of health care reform, Obama-style, and watched in consternation as the White House and their allies in Congress bulled ahead despite the increasing evidence of public opposition. As much as the spending and debt, it is the arrogance and willfulness of the Democrats that has turned them off.
Of even greater moment is the disenchantment among liberals. Despite the legislative achievements, they see disappointment. And not surprisingly. With a liberal President sporting stratospherical approval ratings, towering majorities in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the progressive agenda was looking at the sweetest high hanging curve ball in decades. If this was not the moment to knock it out of the park, such a moment would never come.
Yet, despite the passage of Obamacare, there is no public option. The fight against global warming will have to wait. Social agenda items, such as repeal of don’t ask/don’t tell and gay marriage moved no further forward (the Defense of Marriage Act is still on the books!), comprehensive immigration reform has been still-born, and all the civil-libertarian issues attending on the War on Terror still remain out there – the wire tapping, Guantanamo, renditions, all the rest. And of course, our troops are still out there. What have they been doing?
Of course, the explanation is that the Democratic majorities were not progressive majorities. The numbers that put the Democrats in that position came from candidates in mixed or even red districts – one of Rahm Emanuel’s real successes – and were never reliably there for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. They like to put the blame on the Republicans, but the GOP was powerless. If all the Dems held together they could have passed anything without a single Republican vote – and on occasion they did. But to get all those aye votes they had to pull back from the liberal wish list, because the Blue Dogs and the Republicrats (as some commentators derisively call them) just would not go there.
Fact of the matter is, that despite what the 2008 election seemed to have indicated, the United States was just not up for a turn to the left.
Now, with their best chance in decades ending in half-measures and letdowns, progressives are asking, what’s the point? And their lack of appetite for further struggle is showing in the polls. Meanwhile Obama, revealing one of his least attractive attributes, has responded by criticizing his supporters. In the Rolling Stone interview, he calls the fall-off in enthusiasm “irresponsible” and tells his supporters they “just aren’t serious,” and to “buck up.” It has to be one of the first times in US political history that a sitting president feels the need to hector his partisans to mount the barricades with him.
This by the way is one of the patterns we have seen from this White House – if elections don’t turn out favorably, it’s not their fault or that of their policies. It’s because of weak candidates (Martha Coakley, Creigh Deeds), or in this case, weak-hearted supporters. It’s almost as if Obama thinks the voters don’t deserve him.
The response from some voices on the left has been, well, less than agreeable, accusing Obama of letting them down; one commentator, according to Peggy Noonan, called on him to “stop living in that bubble.” Others suggest people are working to set up the narrative in advance to explain the coming November disaster.
This is not the give and take of like minded politicos jockeying to advance preferred agenda items. This sounds like estrangement, like the sound of Barack Obama crashing off the pedestal. Whereas the splendid turnout and big Congressional majorities of 2008 seemed to signal a generational shift toward a more progressive national mood, the collapse of that coalition in 2010 appears to be something more substantial: the end of love.