So where are we? A softly catastrophic storm left us, in the Northeast, shocked at the depth and breadth of its power to destroy. Everyone who could be was hunkered down Monday waiting it out, and at first we hoped it might not be as bad as we’d been warned, because we’d all seen higher wind and harder rain. But the waters rose and wouldn’t stop, breaching dunes, overwhelming barriers, filling the tunnels and subways like a bathtub, as somebody said on TV. It was—is—a true crisis. So far, our political leaders have done pretty well. But the hard part will be from here on in—getting things up and operating again without the original adrenaline rush.
New York’s mayor, Mike Bloomberg, was sterling—a solid, unruffled giver of information whose news conferences were blessedly free of theatrics save for his gifted sign-language interpreter, who wowed a city and left the young evacuees in my apartment furiously signing “Where’s the coffee?” and “I think the baby needs to be changed.” Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey was his usual compelling self, similarly informative. This is a man who knows a levy from a berm. He is one tough red-state player on a blue-state field. If Mitt Romney loses, will Mr. Christie garner Republican criticism for his hearty embrace of president Obama just days before the election? Yes, he will. Will it hurt him in Jersey? Not a bit. Will it help Jersey? Yes. They are cold and wet and running out of food in the house. Keep your friends close and your president closer.
The “I” of the storm was New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo. He was equally competent and effortful but took the mildly hectoring tone of a kind of leftism that is now old. It involves phrases like “As I’ve long said.” I think this is the worst and I was appalled and when I was at HUD I handled storms and I learned a great deal and I saw we were prepared and I am relieved and I will work hard and I need you to know global warming is what I told you it was.
The winning politicians of the future will not be all about I. People don’t like it. They don’t want to have to wade past the ego to the info.
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Which gets us to Tuesday. No one knows what will happen. Maybe that means it will be close, and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe a surprise is in store. But the fact that Barack Obama is fighting for his political life is still one of the great political stories of the modern era.
Look at where he started, placing his hand on the Bible Abe Lincoln was sworn in on in 1861. It was Jan. 20, 2009. The new president was 47 and in the kind of position politicians can only dream of—a historic figure walking in, the first African-American president, broadly backed by the American people. He won by 9.5 million votes. Two days after his inauguration, Gallup had him at 68% approval, only 12% disapproval. He had a Democratic Senate, and for a time a cloture-proof 60 members. He had a Democratic House (256-178) with a colorful, energetic speaker. The mainstream media were excited about him, supportive of him.
His political foes were demoralized, their party fractured.
He faced big problems—an economic crash,two wars—but those crises gave him broad latitude. All of his stars were perfectly aligned. He could do anything.
And then it all changed. At a certain point he lost the room.
Books will be written about what happened, but early on the president made two terrible legislative decisions. The stimulus bill was a political disaster, and it wasn’t the cost, it was the content. We were in crisis, losing jobs. People would have accepted high spending if it looked promising. But the stimulus was the same old same old, pure pork aimed at reliable constituencies. It would course through the economy with little effect. And it would not receive a single Republican vote in the House (three in the Senate), which was bad for Washington, bad for our politics. It was a catastrophic victory. It did say there was a new boss in town. But it also said the new boss was out of his league.
Then health care, a mistake beginning to end. The president’s 14-month-long preoccupation with ObamaCare signaled that he did not share the urgency of people’s most immediate concerns—jobs, the economy, all the coming fiscal cliffs. The famous 2,000-page bill added to their misery by adding to their fear.
Voters would have had to trust the president a lot to believe his program wouldn’t raise their premiums, wouldn’t limit their autonomy, wouldn’t make a shaky system worse.
But they didn’t trust him that much, because they’d just met him. They didn’t really know him.
You have to build the kind of trust it takes to do something so all-encompassing.
And so began the resistance, the Tea Party movement and the town-hall protests, full of alarmed independents and older Democrats. Both revived Republicans and, temporarily at least, reunited conservatives.
Why did the president make such mistakes? Why did he make decisions that seemed so unknowing, and not only in retrospect?
Because he had so much confidence, he thought whatever he did would work. He thought he had “a gift,” as he is said to have told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He thought he had a special ability to sway the American people, or so he suggested to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
But whenever he went over the the heads of the media and Congress and went to the people, in prime-time addresses, it didn’t really work. He did not have a magical ability to sway. And—oddly—he didn’t seem to notice.
It is one thing to think you’re Lebron. It’s another thing to keep missing the basket and losing games and still think you’re Lebron.
And that really was the problem: He had the confidence without the full capability. And he gathered around him friends and associates who adored him, who were themselves talented but maybe not quite big enough for the game they were in. They understood the Democratic Party, its facts and assumptions. But they weren’t America-sized. They didn’t get the country so well.
It is a mystery why the president didn’t second-guess himself more, doubt himself. Instead he kept going forward as if it were working.
He doesn’t do chastened. He didn’t do what Bill Clinton learned to do, after he took a drubbing in 1994: change course and prosper.
Mr. Obama may yet emerge victorious. There are, obviously, many factors in every race. Maybe, as one for instance, the seriousness of the storm has sharpened people’s anxieties—there are no local crises anymore, a local disaster is a national disaster—so that anxiety will leave some people leaning toward the status quo, toward the known.
Or maybe, conversely, they’ll think he failed to slow the oceans’ rise.
We’ll know soon.
Whatever happens, Mr. Obama will not own the room again as once he did. If he wins, we will see a different presidency—even more stasis, and political struggle—but not a different president.