If Republicans win a significant victory in next Tuesday's election—and it now looks like they will indeed take the Senate—get ready for a whole lot of Obama-bashing, not only from the press and Republicans, but from liberals, as well. Some will go so far as to declare his presidency over, and I suspect more than a few genuine leftists will heap scorn on their liberal friends for their naïve embrace of a politician promising (as politicians always do) to change Washington. We can see one variant of this critique, the Jimmy Carter comparison, in a piece by Thomas Frank, based on an interview he conducted with historian Rick Perlstein:
The moral of this story is not directed at Democratic politicians; it is meant for us, the liberal rank and file. We still "yearn to believe," as Perlstein says. There is something about the Carter/Obama personality that appeals to us in a deep, unspoken way, and that has led Democrats to fall for a whole string of passionless centrists: John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton. Each time, Democratic voters are enchanted by a kind of intellectual idealism that (we are told) is unmoored from ideology. We persuade ourselves that the answer to the savagery of the right—the way to trump the naked class aggression of the One Percent—is to say farewell to our own tradition and get past politics and ideology altogether. And so we focus on the person of the well-meaning, hyper-intelligent leader. We are so high-minded, we think. We are so scientific.
We are such losers.
I'm not going to bother going through all the things that are wrong with Frank's argument (Bill Clinton was "passionless"?), but one thing's for sure: There are no liberals left who think that the savagery of the right is best dealt with through some kind of mushy-headed post-partisanship. Frankly, I don't know how many of them there were to begin with, even those who were smitten by Barack Obama in 2008. They didn't love Obama because they thought he'd melt conservatives' icy hearts; one of the things that made him so compelling was the fact that not only was he inspiring and new, he was also obviously a shrewd tactician who knew how to wield the knife, as he showed in dispatching Hillary Clinton.
But maybe I'm not remembering correctly. To check on whether I'm fooling myself about my own prior feelings about the man, I went back and looked at some of the things I wrote during and just after the 2008 election, and I'm pleased to say most of it holds up pretty well. I even had one shudder-inducing bit of accidental prophecy, from a column published in October of 2008: "For all his talk of bringing Americans together," I wrote, "a President Obama could face an opposition so consumed with disgust and anger and outright hate that it would make the 1990s look like a tea party."
Every president suffering in the polls thinks he'll be vindicated by history (George W. Bush expressed that belief often), but by now Obama is surely frustrated that he doesn't get enough credit for the things that have gone right. Millions of people have gotten secure health coverage because of the Affordable Care Act, and most Americans are happy with the things the law actually does, but they continue to dislike this thing they've heard about called "Obamacare." Job growth during his presidency has been excellent, but everyone still thinks the economy stinks. He's taken some aggressive steps to address global warming, but doesn't get much love from environmentalists.
Back in 2008, I wrote that if Obama could accomplish four big goals—revive the economy, pass health care reform, get us out of Iraq, and make serious progress on climate change—he could stand with our country's great presidents. We're back in Iraq (tentatively), and one can argue about how lasting his moves on climate will be, but there's still a lot there to admire.
Nevertheless, he's stuck at approval ratings in the low 40s, and I doubt that will change much no matter what happens in the next two years. Practical successes matter, but these days partisanship may matter more. Consider that Bill Clinton's approval among Republicans hovered in the 30s throughout his second term, even as he was being impeached; when he left office, Gallup's last poll showed him at 39 percent. As partisan as the 1990s were, times are different today. Barack Obama couldn't get 39 percent approval among Republicans if he cured cancer, discovered a limitless source of clean energy, and raised Ronald Reagan from the dead. His approval among Republicans was 7 percent in the last Gallup poll, and it's not going to come back up.
A Republican Senate will be devoted to one and only one task for the next two years: making Barack Obama's life as miserable as it possibly can (and it will only have two years, because in 2016 the Senate will almost certainly revert back to Democratic control). One thing you're not going to hear from liberals during those years is that they just need to find a "passionless centrist," in Tom Frank's words, in order to tame the GOP (as for Hillary Clinton, she may well be, like her husband, a passionate centrist, but that's a topic for another day).
The real question after next Tuesday will be how Obama responds to the new political reality. Maybe these two years will be an unmitigated disaster that leads everyone to judge Obama a failure. But even if he deftly assembles a string of unlikely successes despite venomous opposition, he won't be leaving office with 60 percent approval ratings. History is likely to forgive that, whatever else it says about him.