NPR logo Presidents' Day: Why Things Aren't Going THE President's Way

Presidents' Day: Why Things Aren't Going THE President's Way

One year ago, a lot of people thought Barack Obama had changed the fundaments of American politics. To hear all the transformation talk, you would think the war between left and right was over, or at least reduced to a mopping-up operation.

So far at least, it hasn't worked out that way. Conservatives are back, with a vengeance.

Yes, this new president did something amazing. He won with more of the popular vote than any Democrat in 44 years. He redefined the upside potential of public service for African Americans. And he helped carry into Congress the biggest Democratic majorities in 30 years.

But he didn't end the political war. No election ever does. Even watershed elections with lopsided results do not. They often signal an upsurge for the minority that comes sooner than anyone would have expected.

The litter from the National Mall on Inauguration Day 2009 was still in recycling when the pushback from the right began in earnest. Protests sprang up around the country, especially organized around Tax Day (April 15) by elements of what would come to be called the Tea Party. Those Republicans who initially tried to work with the new president on a big economic stimulus package — including a few senators and governors — were pilloried and punished.

Next came a summer of discontent in which rising unemployment fears were compounded by anxiety about larger government and health care changes. The president's approval rating slid to the low 50s. Town hall meetings in August became hothouses of populist ire, both spontaneous and orchestrated, and the new Congress felt the heat.

In the fall, the health care bill was hamstrung and held hostage in the Senate, along with all the other major initiatives of the administration. Republicans captured the governorship in New Jersey and Virginia. In January, they also took away the late Teddy Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts.

The Democrats' temporary hold on 60 votes in the Senate, the threshold for ending filibusters, was gone. The Massachusetts result was widely seen as a harbinger for big GOP gains in the 2010 midterms, and the retirement of Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh is just one more sign of that trend.

Should we be shocked at this fickle reversal of fortune? Hardly.

It is worth remembering that nearly half the country voted against Barack Obama in November 2008, and since then very few of those who did have been won over to his side. Meanwhile, inevitably, some of those who did vote for the Democrat have had second thoughts.

Some have concluded he's not the bipartisan breath of fresh air they had hoped he was. They think he's too liberal. Others say no, he's not nearly liberal enough. The wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, bonuses are still paid on Wall Street and prisoners remain at Guantanamo Bay. What happened to change we could believe in?

And that's not to mention health care, the crux of the Obama presidency to date. It's the issue on which liberals have been most disappointed ("there is no real reform without a public option for health insurance") and conservatives most incensed ("it's a total government takeover of health care").

Attempts at compromise often wind up producing something no one really likes. Think of a couple with a new hybrid car: The guy really wants more horsepower and his eco-conscious wife hates the fact that the car still uses gasoline.

The salient features of the health care overhaul still enjoy widespread public support, including the "individual mandate" requirement that everyone should get insurance so that no one need be denied it. People understand the concept and support the basic tradeoffs in the bill.

But when you ask about "Obama care" or the "health bills being considered in Congress," the policy image goes south in a hurry. The combined weight of misconceptions (think "death panels"), the rank partisanship and the dealmaking on the side have besmirched the basic plan beyond recognition.

In other words, far from ending the left-right war, the Obama White House has been caught in its classic crossfire. Now it finds itself paralyzed by the age-old dilemma: Whom to please?

It's fine to say "please the people." Everyone nods for this nostrum. But who are the people? Most folks will tell you THEY are the people. Them, and people like them. And they will tell you people like them are fed up, sick and tired, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

The notion that some other group of people is getting a better deal — be they bankers, lawyers, insurance companies, public employees, union workers, black people, white people or brown people — is both widespread and deeply felt. Victimhood is close to the core of human nature. And when jobs are scarcer than they have been since the Depression, this perennial conviction feeds on the desperation of the times.

Navigating these waters is not for the faint-hearted. Nor is it a simple matter of purpose and perseverance. Choices must be made with no guarantee that even the right choice will produce the right result.

The Obama team proved itself capable against all odds in 2008, denying Hillary Clinton the nomination everyone assumed was hers and then defeating the Republicans' best bipartisan candidate — the one with the least taint of George W. Bush.

Since then, they have encountered what all wunderkind campaign teams must — the vast difference between moving voters before an election and moving mountains thereafter.