This week, Barack Obama named his first nominee to the Supreme Court, then headed west to Las Vegas and Los Angeles to raise money for Democrats in the 2010 midterms. Taken together, these two seemingly disparate acts mark the end of a certain period of innocence in the Obama administration: The "blame Bush" phase of the Obama administration is over, and the prolonged honeymoon that the president has enjoyed with the country and the media will soon come to an end as well.
Obama is no longer just the inheritor of Bush's mess. This is now his presidency in his own right. The chance to choose a Supreme Court justice is such a sui generis exercise of executive power -- it so powerfully underscores the vast and unique powers of a president -- that blame-shifting has become a less effective political strategy, and less becoming as well. Obama's political maturation will be hastened by the impending ideological fight that is now virtually a guarantee for Supreme Court nominations. Old wounds will be opened, and old animosities will be triggered as the process moves along. Already we see the effect in the polls.
While Obama himself remains incredibly popular, only 47 percent of Americans think his choice of Judge Sonia Sotomayor is an excellent or good choice for the Court, according to the latest Gallup poll. The stimulus package scored better than that. The prospect of a new justice really seems to force people to reconsider their culture warrior allegiances in the context of the party in power.
This month, after news of Justice David Souter's retirement, a Gallup poll showed that more Americans considered themselves against abortion rights than in favor: 51 percent to 42 percent. Those number were almost exactly reversed a year ago when Bush was in office and Obama was on the verge of wrapping up the Democratic nomination. "This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question in 1995," according to the polling organization. Is this the same country that elected Obama?
Yes, but with his overwhelmingly Democratic Senate, the public may be sending preemptory signals that they are not interested in a huge swing on some of these cultural issues that tend to explode during nomination hearings. Even though Obama will win the Sotomayor fight, her confirmation is likely to leave him less popular in the end because it will involve contentious issues -- questions of race and gender politics like affirmative action and abortion -- that he managed to avoid or at least finesse through his campaign and during his presidency so far.
Among Obama's many political gifts is his ability to make so much of what he says and does seem apolitical. That's a helpful quality for any politician, and it's had the effect of making Obama seem pragmatic, nonideological, and likeable. He has also had the added benefit of succeeding a president so unpopular that publicly blaming Bush for the problems we confront, which Obama has done frequently, has not always seemed like attack-dog politics, but so many agree with him and believe him to be telling the truth.
That ability to float above the fray all ended this week. Not simply because picking a Supreme Court justice tends to pull the Band-Aid off all the culture wounds but also because the president has now begun the very political business of fundraising. Obama was in Las Vegas this week raising money for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who may have one of the toughest races of any Senate incumbent in the country in 2010. Republicans are teeing up for the Nevada election battle, knowing that knocking off a congressional leader will be a quick way to revive party enthusiasm.
"We view this race as highly competitive, if not the most highly competitive race for a seat held by a Democratic incumbent today," said Randy Bumps, political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to The New York Times.
Reid has raised a lot of money to discourage challengers, but midterm elections are historically hard on the president's party. Only four times since 1934 has the president's party picked up seats in the Senate at midterm, and only three times in the House, which include Bush's gains after September 11. Obama must know all this, and at the Reid fundraiser, it was clear that he intended to work hard to keep the majority leader in office.
"That's why all of you are here tonight. That's why you're digging deep. That's why I know you're going to make those phone calls and knock on those doors and get to the polls again next November so that we make sure that Harry Reid continues his devoted service to this great state," Obama said. "That's why I'm here tonight, because I can't bring the change I promised all by myself. I can't rebuild an economy by myself."
Though he has been pretty much carrying the party all by himself so far, it's good that Obama realizes his limits, which certainly exist. Soon, he will have trouble doing it all by himself, because he'll be less popular since people will see him as a more political entity. This was inevitable: He had to pick a justice and he's going to have to raise money and campaign for Democrats. Soon we'll see how the president performs when only about half the country thinks he is doing the right thing on any given day.