WHAT WENT WRONG? How did Barack Obama lose Middle America? As Time magazine’s Mark Halperin wrote on December 6, five weeks after the November elections:
The coalition that got Barack Obama elected President just two years ago has been shattered.… A survey of the political landscape shows that many groups who were part of the 2008-09 Obama coalition have turned on him.… With unemployment high and promising to stay there, it is nearly impossible in the short term for Obama to shift opinion and be seen as a successful President.… Even if the President somehow sloughs off that Spock-like laconic demeanor and dispatches his fired-up-and-ready-to-go persona, he isn’t going to be able to change many of the dynamics that have weakened him.
Halperin had been bearish on the president for months. On September 9, he wrote:
The President and his top advisers have betrayed visible annoyance at the Republicans’ failure to rally behind the White House’s latest plans to goose the economy: proposed tax incentives for companies to make capital expenditures and do more R&D.…
It is fair to ask (and many Democrats have) why the President is only now proposing such critical measures, rather than offering them up earlier in his term, before election-season politics brought governing to a standstill.
It’s fair to answer, too. While Americans were anxious about the economy, Obama was obsessed with health care — and urged on by cheerleaders in the media like the one who wrote an article on March 22, the day after the House passed Obamacare, which began as follows:
In the 7 1/2 months between now and November’s midterm elections, millions of Americans will be whipped into a frenzy over the purported evils in the Democrats’ health care bill, egged on by Fox News chatter, Rush Limbaugh’s daily sermons, threats of state legislative and judicial action and the solemn pledge of Republicans in Washington to make the fall election a referendum on Obamacare. But in doing so, they may be playing right into the Democrats’ hands.
Who wrote that? Mark Halperin.
It would be unsporting to dwell on his lack of prescience. Anyone who makes political predictions sometimes gets it wrong. But in his March 22 piece, Halperin went beyond prognostication:
Democrats will be joined in the fray by much of the press. For Republicans, this will seem like familiar ground, since generations of conservatives have complained that the so-called mainstream media have been biased against them. Well, get ready, Republicans, for déjà vu all over again. The coverage through November likely will highlight the most extreme attacks on the President and his law and spotlight stories of real Americans whose lives have been improved by access to health care….
The louder Republicans yell, the more they will be characterized and caricatured as sore losers infuriated by the first major delivery of candidate Obama’s promise of “change.” The focus on the weekend’s alleged racial and gay-bashing verbal attacks by opponents of the Democrats’ plan should be a caution to Republican strategists trying to figure out how to manage the media this year.
Halperin is a member of the press, and he was among the Obamacare cheerleaders who, as he accurately observed, made up “much of the press.” Thus, that last excerpt was not just a prediction but a promise: Don’t worry, Mr. President, we in the press will propagandize relentlessly for you and turn this into a political winner.
That was an unwise promise to make, not only because the press is supposed to be independent, but also because it was impossible to deliver. The liberal media monopoly was broken long ago. Halperin and his colleagues were never going to be able to put lipstick on the Obamacare pig by slandering opponents or producing puff pieces on “real Americans whose lives have been improved.” Yet having promised to do just that, Halperin didn’t even try. Instead, he chastised the president — for inexplicably following Halperin’s advice!
Not that some in the media didn’t continue doing their best to put on a brave pro-Obama face. A December 15 story on the front page of the Washington Post minimized the meaning of the Republican victory:
Republicans may have made major gains in the November elections, but they have yet to win the hearts and minds of the American people, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The midterm elections — in which Republicans gained 63 seats to take control of the House and added six seats to their Senate minority — were widely seen as a rebuke to President Obama. Still, the public trusts Obama marginally more than they do congressional Republicans to deal with the country’s main problems in the coming years, 43 percent to 38 percent.
The poll suggests that the election, while perhaps a vote against the status quo, was not a broad mandate for Republicans and their plans.
The Post reporters, Dan Balz and Jon Cohen, offered this example: “Obama maintains double-digit leads over Republicans in two big areas — helping the middle class and health-care reform.” So Americans like Obamacare after all? Well, no. Two days earlier, Cohen had reported on the Post‘s website about a finding that was omitted from the subsequent front-page analysis of the poll. A 52 percent majority “oppose the overhaul to the health care system,” while only 43 percent supported it.
So why the GOP do so badly in the poll? The obvious explanation — obvious to everyone except Balz and Cohen — is that the voters did give Republicans a mandate but didn’t trust them to carry it out.
AS FOR HALPERIN, he had all his bases covered. He published the grim assessment with which we began this column on a Monday. Hours later, Obama announced a deal with congressional Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years in return for an extension of unemployment benefits and a one-year cut in the Social Security payroll tax.
The centrist compromise was generally popular, but Obama offended Republicans and Democrats alike by declaring at a Tuesday news conference that he planned to reverse it in two years, that the deal had been forced on him by Republican “hostage takers,” and that his own left-wing supporters were “purist” and “sanctimonious” for complaining. Things got so bad that by Friday Bill Clinton was doing damage control at his own White House news conference.
One man, Mark Halperin, was totally won over. The following Monday, he wrote:
By closing 2010 with the kind of bipartisan compromise that was supposed to be the hallmark of his Administration, Obama showed that he is capable of change, and that there is hope he can achieve his goals.… Over time, this new Obama — the one who, out of necessity, is going to make deals with Republicans to fix the economy and get things done, rather than keep his wagon hitched to the liberal wing of his party — has a chance to have not only a liberated and happy holiday season, but also a 2011 filled with the fruits of a successful midcourse correction that has not yet been a part of his presidential repertoire. That’s change the President can believe in.
Maybe so, but Halperin had better be careful, lest somebody hire a lawyer and sue him for whiplash.
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