Halperin’s Shaky Premises

Obama may need luck, but these claims need some backing

Anyone who’s read Game Change knows that Time’s Mark Halperin isn’t exactly averse to big assertions backed by little evidence (at least, little cited evidence). He is also a fan of the grand, fiery flourish. But even with that in mind, Halperin’s One Nation column yesterday—“What Obama Needs to Come Back: Luck”—feels heavy-handed and perfectly strange.

The gist is that the president has alienated everyone who once supported him and is going down in a Hindenburg-sized inferno unless luck turns his way. Or at least, along with any political strategizing or small successes he puts in place, he will need to a little luck along the way. Halperin may be right. But his path to that point is littered with a few too many sweeping, weightless claims.

What exactly is luck, in this case? An American Idol-style defining moment.

Busy as he’s been, he has not yet experienced a single major moment that has benefited him politically. The most dramatic events of his term—the BP oil spill, the passage of the health-care law, the arms-control agreement with Russia —have had either no impact or a negative influence on Obama’s standing.

No one wants the country to suffer another catastrophe. But when a struggling Bill Clinton was faced with the Oklahoma City bombing and a floundering George W. Bush was confronted by 9/11, they found their voices and a route to political revival. Perhaps Obama’s crucible can be positive—the capture of Osama bin Laden, the fall of the Iranian regime, a dramatic technological innovation that revitalizes American manufacturing—something to reintroduce him to the American people and show the strengths he demonstrated as a presidential candidate.

While it’s hard to argue that the fall of the Iranian regime wouldn’t be difficult for the GOP to spin against the president—“What, it took you like three years!”—the problem with Halperin’s argument is its premise: that the president is completely abandoned and his fate lies as much, or more, in his stars than in himself. Here is how Halperin builds the case:

A survey of the political landscape shows that many groups who were part of the 2008-09 Obama coalition have turned on him. Liberals believe he is an overcompromising wimp. (See blistering recent columns by progressive icons Paul Krugman and Frank Rich of the New York Times for a taste of what the left thinks of “their” President now.) The business community considers Obama ignorant about markets at best, a socialist at worst (O.K., some business people entertain an even harsher assessment). The media, after aiding and abetting his ride to the White House, now see the President as incompetent and overwhelmed. The independents and Republicans who backed him for office currently feel he is too liberal and too weak to do the job. These trends are all worse in Washington and among opinion leaders than they are in the country at large, but the views of elites are clearly shaping how the President is perceived by the nation in general.

And later:

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. Republicans are emboldened by the results of the midterm elections and by their continued discipline and verve in driving the same message since Election Day (and likely well into 2011). They believe they can beat Obama for re-election and will stay on their winning path as long as it is working. Liberals, frustrated and rattled, are poised to cry betrayal whenever the President cooperates with the GOP. And the rancid freak show of the politico-media industrial complex is as toxic as ever.

Should Obama effectively confront these dynamics, he will still need some luck.

Few things. Halperin’s only-the-cosmos-can-save-him analysis makes no mention of the fact that Obama is still enjoying a not-too-shabby forty-seven percent approval rating; Clinton’s low was thirty-seven percent; Reagan’s thirty-five percent. He is still relatively popular, even at this post-shellacking trough, when, according to Halperin, his coalition of supporters has been “shattered.”

And what evidence does Halperin present that the coalition has been shattered? That big business, “Liberals,” and the media are against him. And what evidence does Halperin present to support this? That Halperin says so.

We won’t argue that big business is laying down the palms every time the president visits New York, but there is little to suggest that the media as a whole has turned on the president. Or there might be, but it’s not in this column. As for Liberals, Halperin throws out for evidence two Times columns published in the past two days. And while they do represent the crest of a wave of growing consternation among liberals—see the Nation’s mammoth wave-building turnabout from the middle of the year—Halperin seems to be making his argument as though Obama will face no opposition but himself come 2012.

Aside from the fact that a lot can change in two years—just look at the president’s current situation compared to early 2009—it is difficult to gauge the kind of position Obama will be in as the election draws near without knowing who he will be facing in that nearing election. It is likely that, at the very least, liberals will line up again behind the president no matter who he faces from the right. If his opponent turns out to be a certain media punching bag and former Alaskan governor, the press is likely to follow suit. Such a nomination might be just the kind of luck Halperin means.

As noted above, Halperin writes, “These trends are all worse in Washington and among opinion leaders than they are in the country at large, but the views of elites are clearly shaping how the President is perceived by the nation in general.”

Clearly shaping? Wishful thinking.

Among the country at large I suspect the economy, jobs, the deficit, wallets, and not the ideological grumblings of opinion leaders ensconced inside the beltway, are causing the bulk of the president’s current troubles. But that’s just based on the November exit polling rather than the consensus of a Morning Joe panel.

Halperin’s column feels too guilty of that conceit to which Washington’s “opinion leaders” seem at times hopelessly devoted: squeezing the current president into presidential narratives past. Clinton and Bush needed a big moment; so too must Obama. It might be true. But in forcing the connection and not acknowledging the differences between the circumstances which brought those presidencies to their low points, Halperin seems to be doing a lot of quick gymnastics to make his argument. He ignores Obama’s unique current position, he fails to acknowledge the change in dynamic an opponent will add, and gives too little credence to the potential for change that a two year period offers.

The landing may be perfect, the president may indeed need a bit of luck to win in 2012, but the routine before is a little sloppy.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.