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The Audacity of Normalcy


This is a good column from Dana Milbank:

The most extraordinary thing about his presidency so far may be how ordinary it is.

Obama came to power as an agent of change amid almost messianic expectations. But he's run into the usual problems. His health-care reform effort has been postponed because of Democratic infighting. Climate-change legislation is on a slow road, and an overhaul of financial regulations has been watered down by industry. Republicans are united in opposing virtually everything on his agenda.

Obama's poll ratings are identical to Bush's at the same point in his presidency. In the July Washington Post poll, 59 percent of Americans approve of the job the current president is doing, and 38 percent disapprove. Compare that with the July 2001 numbers for Bush, who had lost the popular vote and got the job because of a 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision. Support: 59 percent. Oppose: 38 percent.

In the days before his inauguration, 76 percent of the public thought Obama would "bring needed change to Washington." Now 62 percent think he has done so. And only 52 percent think Obama is a "new-style" politician, compared with 43 percent who consider him "old-style." That's not much better than Bill Clinton's numbers after a disastrous first six months.

It's not the result of any big mistake by Obama -- his unwise comments on the Henry Louis Gates arrest last week were a rare exception -- as much as his idealism colliding with this town's reality: The political system is broken and not easily changed.

It's also a reminder -- if George W. Bush hadn't decisively provided this -- that presidential mandates are meaningless. Clinton didn't win a majority, Bush didn't win a plurality, and Obama won both. But congressional Republicans haven't given Obama's priorities more support in deference to the public's judgment.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 28, 2009; 2:58 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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I'm not sure why you think this column is a good one. It reads like basic Beltway conventional wisdom, encased inside standard-issue conservative framing. His realization that the "political system is broken" hardly seems a newsworthy point.

Posted by: sandrine1 | July 28, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

I think presidential mandates are generally meaningless because there aren't elections to force the issue soon enough, and it is in the interest of the opposition party to obstruct and delay any major accomplishments so that the mandate can be boiled down. If Republicans allowed health care, climate change and financial sector regulation pass through with nary a peep, Obama would still be in the stratosphere, poll wise. But their opposition means that, somewhere, at least 40% of the public is hardening their views against the administration and they fight over the middle ground.

Posted by: smhjr1 | July 28, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

The comparison is ludicrous. By this point in his presidency, the most difficult issue Bush had grappled with was stem cell research. Recall how he agonized over the topic for weeks and had a prime time address on the topic, as if it was the single most important thing on his plate.

To date, Obama has passed the stimulus bill, and negotiated a wholesale restructuring of the auto industry. He is presently piloting through congress health care reform, a climate bill, and a banking reform bill. On top of that, he is trying to resolve two wars. Any one of these things is a HUGE deal. It is completely unrealistic to expect resolution on all of them so quickly.

Posted by: jleaux | July 28, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

the audacity of honesty...

did barack obama make an unwise comment in the gates incident?

maybe this particular case was the exception to the rule... but president obama called overdue, honest attention to the fact that every other week, there is another example in the news, of brutality or prejudice toward african~ americans and latinos somewhere in the country, prior to being arrested.

in the scheme of things, i think it is a good thing that this happened. this country is greatly in need of more teachable moments.
and seeing gates and crowley, with obama at the white house, will be a good thing.

today, after i saw the photograph of max baucus and his committee, around the table...a photograph that looked straight out of a wall street journal that would be dated, 1958....i saw a photograph of barack and michelle obama, standing under a painting of dwight eisenhower. and how does that not look like change?
barack and michelle obama and their two daughters, in the white house, are changing the perceptions of a whole generation of kids, all across the united states, and the world.

not all of the change that is emanating out of this presidency, will just be about politics.

there is no such thing as small change.

Posted by: jkaren | July 28, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

The reason Obama lacks a mandate is because he ran a campaign based on his personal brand, rather than an issues-based campaign. Thus, it is not surprising that there is no mandate for a health care reform with extraordinary new specifics that were never discussed in the campaign. It is not surprising that Waxman-Markey has raised a few eyebrows, when Obama promised generic carbon trading during the campaign.

Posted by: Dellis2 | July 28, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

To compare Bush and Obamas presidencies so far is ridiculous. Does anyone even remember what Bush did before 9/11. The only thing he did was direct money towards faith based groups, announce stem cell research funding, and pass a big tax cut (which is the easiest thing to do in American politics). No Child Left Behind wouldn't be passed for another 6 months.

In comparison, Obama has passed the largest single instance of public investment in infrastructure in history, the Lily-Ledbetter act, and SCHIP. Plus, they are very close to passing major health care reform, which has never been done before.

Posted by: burp2 | July 28, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

"But congressional Republicans haven't given Obama's priorities more support in deference to the public's judgment."

Nor, for that matter, have congressional Democrats. Isn't that the real story? That Obama's mandate is being strangled from within his own party?

Posted by: tomtildrum | July 28, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Watch Obama's body language when he's in a town hall meeting (rather than on the stage by himself). It's as much about listening as speaking, being a part of the conversation rather than driving it. He can, of course, dominate the stage as well, as we have seen him do that making powerful speeches on race and at the 2004 Democratic convention.

Posted by: pneogy | July 28, 2009 6:48 PM | Report abuse

This is what counts as a "good column"? I hope your judgment isn't being corrupted by friendship or coworker solidarity.

Posted by: tbomb | July 29, 2009 2:41 AM | Report abuse

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