By Elvin Lim
These are deliquescent days in Washington. As the Democratic party works out a deal to keep both Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn in the leadership hierarchy, and the Republican party takes stock of what it means to welcome 35 new Tea Party members into its caucus, the President must be wondering, what now?
But these grim prognostications are pre-mature, if only because most presidents have been able to marshal their incumbent benefits to win a second term in office. When David Axelrod exits the White House in January and passes the baton over to David Plouffe, the White House will go into full campaign mode. These guys do not like losing, and they have one thing going for them: the best self-promoter the business has ever seen.
Team Obama will have a few other things going for them. First, they no longer have to set the agenda. Whereas for the last two years, the White House has acted and the Republican party has reacted, a role reversal is about to happen. And one of the rules of American politics is that s/he who sets the agenda gets the blame when the constitution’s multiple veto points invariably alters or derails the agenda. Second, now that the House will be controlled by the Republicans, Obama will be able to do what presidents do best: assign blame to the inefficient First Branch and take things into his own hands. Presidential discretion is a very powerful thing and it is especially powerful when the president’s hand appears to be forced by an uncooperative House. Third, as Nancy Pelosi is likely to remain the leader of the Democrats in the House, she can continue to be the lightning rod for conservative critics (and proof to the liberal base that the Democratic party made a good-faith effort to be true to its progressive principles), while the president will be freed to perform the role of bipartisan leader so that he can try to win back the independent voters who have lost their love for him.
There is no reliable litmus test for Obama’s re-electability until a credible Republican alternative is placed before the electorate. No such person exists right now – not even Sarah Palin, who seems newly interested in the job, but who is likely only to remain a fundraiser and kingmaker, but not the successful candidate, because she is even more polarizing than Hillary Clinton was in 2008. In the months ahead, the Republican party will take up the challenge of reconciling itself with the principles of Tea party libertarianism, and the party’s success in 2012 will turn in large part on its ability to complete this reconciliation before the primary season of 2012 begins.
All told, the American presidency is strongest when it is weakest and weakest when it is strongest. Think of Bill Clinton when he was being impeached, or George Bush when he declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. Obama was weakest when he stood triumphantly before Corinthian pillars made of styrofoam and now that he has been humbled, no longer over-estimated, and indeed condemned to a single term, he is more likely than not to rise phoenix-like. Such is the nature of prerogative.
As historians begin to examine President Bush’s newly released memoir, Obama should take heed that if history has not yet been written for his predecessor, then it has certainly not been written for him.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. Read Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.