Commentary Magazine


From King Canute to a Cork in the Ocean

White House political adviser David Axelrod granted an interview to Ron Brownstein of National Journal that qualifies as either hyper-spin or an almost clinical state of denial. For example, Axelrod tells Brownstein, “It’s almost impossible to win a referendum on yourself. And the Republicans would like this to be a referendum. It’s not going to be a referendum.”

Yes it will. When a political party controls the presidency and, by wide margins, the House and the Senate, the midterm election will be a referendum on the stewardship of that party. There’s no way to get around that. What’s particularly revealing is that Axelrod and his colleagues, rather than welcoming a referendum on their year in office, are terribly afraid of it. They know that if the dominant issues of the 2010 midterm election are how well Democrats have governed, they will absorb tremendous damage.

Axelrod makes this point in a slightly different way when he says:

If the question is what we’ve been able to achieve, which I think is substantial, versus the ideal of what people hope for or hoped for, that’s a harder race for us. If the choice is between the things we’ve achieved and we’re fighting for and what the other side would deliver, I think that’s very motivational to people.

In other words, if people measure us against perfection, we will fall short. But people won’t be measuring Obama and Democrats against perfection; they will be measuring him/them against the standards Obama set up — for example, insisting that unemployment would not exceed 8 percent in 2009 (it is now 10 percent); that the stimulus package would “create or save” 3.5 million jobs over the course of two years (2.8 million jobs have been lost since it was signed into law); that the deficit and debt would go down on his watch (Obama’s budget will double the debt in five years and triple it in 10 years); and so forth.

Mr. Axelrod also tells Brownstein that next on his checklist is “finish this health care bill successfully.” And after that? “Then we have to go out and sell it. I think we can run on this.”

The problem is that the president has been trying to “sell” ObamaCare for more than half a year. He has spoken out on its behalf repeatedly and in every forum imaginable. And the more Obama attempts to sell the Democrats’ health-care plan, the more unpopular it becomes. After a prolonged and intense debate on this issue, here’s what they have to show for it: “The president’s marks on handling health care, with reforms still under debate in Congress, are even lower [than his overall job approval rating of 46 percent] — just 36 percent approve, while 54 percent disapprove,” according to the latest CBS News poll. “Both of these approval ratings are the lowest of Mr. Obama’s presidency.”

If Axelrod and the Obama White House really believe the problem here is with their sales job rather than with the product they are trying to sell, then they are living in an alternative universe. ObamaCare is responsible in large measure for the devastating Democratic losses in the Virginia and New Jersey governors races. The political environment is so bad right now that even Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is viewed by Republicans and Democrats as endangered. This is a remarkable political development.

Finally, Mr. Axelrod says this:

In certain ways we are at the mercy of forces that are larger than things we can control. If we see steady months of jobs growth between now and next November, I think the picture will be different than if we don’t. I think Ronald Reagan learned that lesson in 1982. We’re not immune to the physics of all of this. But I’m guardedly optimistic that we are going to see that progress.

Here’s a pretty good rule of thumb: when senior White House political advisers begin to use phrases like “we are at the mercy of forces that are larger than we can control” and “we’re not immune to the physics of all this,” you can assume they are in deep trouble. That is especially the case for those who work for a president who proclaimed that his victory would mark the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Now Obama and Axelrod portray themselves like corks in the ocean. They invoke the laws of physics to explain why unemployment is in double digits. It turns out it is a quick journey from political messianism to political fatalism.

Axelrod’s words are a revealing (if unwitting) concession: he and his colleagues understand that they are overmatched by events and, in office for less than a year, they are scrambling to find excuses for the problems they face. But the fault, dear David, is not in the stars, but in yourselves. There will be a high political price to pay for this — perhaps starting next week but almost certainly by next November.

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