It Wasn’t Really an Upset

An upset is a surprise. The loss of Anthony Weiner’s former seat to the Republicans was not a surprise. It was the latest in a long string of referendums on the president’s leadership. That string started in 2009 when the New Jersey and Virginia governorships went Republican, and continued in 2010 with the loss of Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat. Then there was last November.

At first these elections looked like, and could be experienced by the White House as, an attempt at a corrective: Change your ways or you’ll lose us. By November 2010 they were a warning: You’re losing us, we’re leaving. Now they are simply more proof of a broad rejection: You’ve lost us.

How did it happen? It still comes down to three big mistakes: the president’s spending decisions, his health-care bill, and the White House’s strange inability to understand the breadth and depth of the economic crisis. Spending was both high and same-old-same-old: The 2009 stimulus and the budget proposals were Democratic wish lists. This at the exact moment voters were coming to fear that we are losing America, the strong country of old, and the first thing we must do to right things is stop the hemorrhagic spending in Washington. The health-care bill was huge, expensive, vaguely menacing and lacking in any serious reform. Most amazingly, the White House failed to understand what the financial crisis was. They did not understand it was systemic, world-wide, would last years, and would change everything. They seemed to think it would pass. But the crisis rendered old campaign promises null and demanded new approaches.

History will write of this era when history has the time and the distance. The president would have been helped by wise old aides with wise old heads, people who somewhere along the line had had to meet a payroll. Instead he was surrounded by bright, committed, energetic naïfs who didn’t know what they didn’t know. They knew Democratic Party politics. They did not know national politics. To know that you have to know the nation’s mood.

Anyway, what a disaster cluster.

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To the New York race. As this is written, with 92% of precincts counted, Republican Bob Turner leads Democrat David Weprin 53% to 47%. That doesn’t look big but is. In 2008, Mr. Weiner won the district with 93%. In 2010, a bad year for Democrats, he beat Mr. Turner with 61%. In 2008 Barack Obama carried the district 55% to 44%. This week a Sienna College poll said voters there now had an unfavorable opinion of the president by 54% to 43%. It’s a perfect reversal.

Orthodox Jews and Israel, gay marriage, the economy—all these things played a part, but at the end of the day it was about Mr. Obama. It is always about his leadership now. And that is a great quandary for Democrats, because they are not going to get rid of him, they are not going to primary him, because they don’t want to break their party open.

Lloyd Green, a close follower of New York politics and former staffer in the George H.W. Bush campaign of 1988, looked at the voting patterns. The predominantly Catholic 23rd Assembly District went for Mr. Turner by 2,000 votes out of roughly 10,000 cast. In predominantly Jewish and Russian Flatbush, Mr. Turner got more than twice the votes Mr. Weprin did. “The white middle class is heading for the exits,” said Mr. Green. The Republican won with a coalition of Catholics, ethnics and Jews. “This was not only Rudy Giuliani’s base, it was Bill Clinton’s New York base as well.”

Michael Barone in the Washington Examiner: “For nearly two decades it has been taken for granted that white residents [of] metro New York are heavily Democratic.” Not in this election: “They just issued what amounts to an emphatic thumbs down on the policies of the Obama Democrats.”

The best day-after reporting came from Michael Daly in the Daily Beast, who accompanied Mr. Weiner as he voted in Forest Hills. At one point the former congressman saw a woman with her arm in a sling and asked what happened. She said she’d fallen down some steps. “Just a little advice,” said Mr. Weiner: “Come up with a more dramatic story.” She said that she’d been taking care of someone’s dog when it caused her to fall. Mr. Weiner suggested she change it by saying she and the dog had been chasing a bad guy down the street. “Heroically,” Mr. Weiner added. He said his advice was from “a politician.” He caught himself and said, “a former politician.”

Meanwhile, those who write about politics struggle each week to find new ways to say the president’s poll numbers are worsening. From Bloomberg this week: Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy 62% to 33%. “The president’s job approval rating also stands at the lowest of his presidency,” 45%. In Virginia, which Mr. Obama carried 53% to 46%, voters in a Quinnipiac poll said 51% to 41% that he doesn’t deserve four more years.

In California, which Mr Obama carried with 61% vote in 2008, a Field poll reported only 46% of respondents approve the president’s performance. That is a big change even from three months ago, when Californians gave him 54% approval. What happened in those three months? The debt ceiling. Republicans insisted on cuts to equal the debt raise. The nation was anxious, markets jittery, and you have to know where—and when—to pick your battles. The president should have agreed to the cuts, avoided a crisis, and kept walking. He did not, and he continues to pay.

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This is all so dire and critical that I will swerve and end with three things I’ve admired about the president since he entered the White House.

The first is that he has an intact, multigenerational family, a wife and kids and mother-in-law all living together in that big house. This is no doubt a source of strength for him, but it’s also moving and impressive to see in a country ravaged by family breakup and fatherless—and sometimes motherless—children. It is a needed example. As nothing human stays intact without great effort, all credit to him, and them.

The second is that he isn’t mean. His staffers do snark and push-back, but they don’t do targeted abuse, they don’t seem to try to take down foes in a personal way, as administrations before them have. Credit goes to the president because it’s always the boss who sets the tone.

The third has been a relative absence of deep political scandal. It’s been good not to have a Watergate, a Whitewater. But there are signs this week that could change with the Solyndra loan scandal. The White House apparently tried to rush almost half a billion dollars of taxpayer loans to a solar panel manufacturer that later went belly up and took a thousand jobs with it. The reason for the rush: The awarding of the loan would make good PR. This looks bad, and if it’s true, heads should quickly roll. It’s one thing to be branded as “out of your depth but not corrupt,” quite another when it’s “out of your depth and corrupt.” That is much worse.