Obama’s pushing of agenda has cost him dearly 

President Barack Obama’s greatest need is to escape the ideological grip of congressional Democrats and the liberal base of the Democratic party (they’re one and the same). But he either doesn’t recognize this or, as a conventional liberal himself, isn’t so inclined. This self-inflicted difficulty has put Obama in worse political straits than President Bill Clinton faced after the Republican landslide of 1994.

Certainly there was nothing in Obama’s State of the Union address to indicate he understands the fix he’s in. His message, though he didn’t put it in quite these words, was that he’d rather fight for unpopular liberal policies than switch to broadly appealing centrist ones.

A bad omen for Obama and Democrats was the pleased-as-punch response of Capitol Hill’s top Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It makes my job a little easier than if he were moving to the middle and picking up people,” McConnell says. “I naively thought he was going to do a course correction.”

Since the Republican Senate victory in Massachusetts on Jan. 19 and the collapse of Obama’s domestic agenda, the parallels between Obama now and Clinton in 1994 have come into sharp focus. To save his presidency after his stiff rebuff in the midterm elections, Clinton lurched to the political center. He adopted a strategy of “triangulation” that involved painful compromises with Republicans, who had captured the House and Senate. It worked. Clinton glided to re-election in 1996, defeating Republican Bob Dole by 7 points.

Though it’s rarely acknowledged, Clinton’s most significant successes in the White House were all in conjunction with Republicans: the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, welfare reform in 1996, and balanced budget legislation in 1997 that included a cut in the capital gains tax rate that spurred the financial boom and budget surplus of his second term.

For Clinton, creating daylight between his presidency and liberal Democrats was easy. They hadn’t been responsible for his election in 1992, nor was he ideologically tethered to them. In Obama’s case, separating himself would be hard. The liberal base was instrumental in his election, controls both houses of Congress, and may retain its majority after the 2010 midterms as well.

Even if Obama wanted to, it would be awkward for him to negotiate legislative deals with Republicans while liberal Democrats control Congress.

At the core of Obama’s trouble is a misreading of the 2008 election. He and Democratic liberals interpreted it as a mandate for an era of liberal lawmaking and governance in a newly minted center-left America. And they set out to create that era with sweeping initiatives on health care, energy and the environment, and the economy.

They were wrong. America is a center-right country politically and has been for decades. Pushing a liberal agenda for a year has cost Obama dearly. His public approval has fallen at a record rate for a first-year president. And so has support for his policies.

Obama is clinging to the one advantage his party retains, its strength in Congress. “To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills,” Obama declared in the speech. Sorry, Mr. President, but dozens of Democrats in Republican-leaning districts or red states are already in full flight, either deciding to retire or abandoning your agenda.

To boost his recovery after the Republican landslide of 1994, Clinton found a useful foil, the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich. When Gingrich overreached, Clinton was the beneficiary. Obama desperately needs a foil, but his attempts to turn McConnell and Republicans into one have failed. Instead, he’s become their foil.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard, from which this article is adapted.

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Fred Barnes

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Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard

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