Obama's Timetable: Pushing Off The Reckoning

Health care is on the Senate floor, war is in the air and the recession remains foremost in the minds of most Americans.

One year after the momentous Obama election, the unemployment rate is still rising and Afghanistan is about to see a major escalation by U.S. and (perhaps) NATO forces. The president's signature domestic issue, health care, struggles toward an uncertain climax, while the other systemic upheavals on climate, immigration and financial regulation are pushed further into the future.

A strategy is emerging in the orchestration of all these sweeping policy moves. Imposed in part by circumstance and adversity, the grand strategy is ultimately a product of political calculus. The strategy says the turnaround desired by the administration cannot be achieved in a year or two. The critical assessment of this presidential term will come in the latter months of 2011 and the first half of 2012.

Urgency meets painstaking process against a background of public impatience.

What Obama must hope is that the economy keeps coming back, however sluggishly, without another big dip in the next 24 to 36 months. The White House and the country can long for good times to return sooner, but the economy is burdened by weak demand for labor and an undersupply of credit — especially for small business.

The Federal Reserve is willing to keep interest rates low precisely for these reasons, but the Fed also projects these conditions will improve only gradually over the next few years.

Obama must also hope that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq can continue despite the renewed turmoil already boiling over in that caldron. He now sees Afghanistan as a similar engage-and-disengage scenario, only at an earlier stage.

Candidate Obama disparaged the 2007 surge in Iraq, but President Obama is willing to use a modified version of it now as a last resort in Afghanistan. Getting out is now years away. But some version of the exit-oriented success seen so far in Iraq looks better than all the other options.

There will not be time for even subjective success in Iraq or Afghanistan. There may not be time for the economy to turn around, and the health care plan won't take effect for several years — if indeed it is enacted at all. Addressing climate change and immigration will need even longer time frames.

Can this kind of delayed gratification work? Yes, but not without a cost.

The clear losers in this scenario are the Democratic candidates running in red states and swing states and battleground districts in 2010. Some whose own approval ratings are underwater will get little boost from the president in states and districts that did not climb aboard his bandwagon when it was rolling one year ago.

That goes for Senate Democrats such as Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas and for Democratic challengers such as Charlie Melancon in Louisiana, who would have a good shot at troubled Republican Sen. David Vitter. It also goes for many of the 49 House Democrats whose districts voted for John McCain.

On the gubernatorial level it all but guarantees that the Republican comeback begun by their governors-elect in New Jersey and Virginia will continue. And that will help the party down the road in the legislative and congressional redistricting battles to come in 2011.

This is why Republicans are lately feeling good again when they look ahead to 2010. But a rough first midterm is a price Obama must be willing to pay if he is to pursue anything like the program he ran on in 2008 and have any chance of running on it again in 2012.

In the longer run, a president determined to outlast his early circumstances can sometimes do so.

The most obvious is the case of Ronald Reagan's first term in the early 1980s. Reagan's 1980 majority in the popular vote was even slimmer than Obama's, but he scored an even larger Electoral College landslide that carried in a Republican Senate and a functionally conservative House of Republicans and Southern conservative Democrats.

But the problems Reagan promised to address — the economy, the deficit, the Soviets — did not melt away overnight. Unemployment around 10 percent dominated the midterm election in 1982, and Democrats took back 26 seats in the House along with seven governorships. Not a few commentators saw those results in 1982 as ending what they mocked as the "Reagan era."

But Reagan survived, and more important, so did Reaganism. The incumbent roared back in 1984 to carry 49 states and secure many of his long-term changes in economic, foreign and domestic policy.

Bill Clinton had a rocky first two years in office, even though the economy was improving (rising from the recession that had defeated George H.W. Bush). Clinton in 1994 had an even more disastrous first midterm than Reagan, losing twice as many seats as Reagan in the House, where the GOP captured its first majority in 40 years. Clinton also lost eight seats (and the majority) in the Senate and a dozen governorships as well. The GOP captured a majority of the House and Senate seats and governorships across the South for the first time since Reconstruction.

Yet just two years later, Clinton would win re-election easily as his party enjoyed the first of three consecutive cycles of gains in Congress.

No president can plan a path to re-election and expect to follow it. Circumstances and the actions of countless others will present obstacles still unknown. But in deciding which risks to bear when, and how to time the reckoning, none can overlook the political imperative.

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