This is a blog of confessions, so here’s another one: I had better things to do last night than watch the Republican presidential debate—even if, in the light of day, I can’t quite remember what they were. Life is short. Whatever importance such debates have is less a function of what the contestants said than of what interested observers say about what they said. So I make it a practice to devote the time I could have spent watching the candidates drone on to reading the commentary about the drone. Most of it, to be sure, isn’t any more enlightening than what the candidates said. But the fact that the influential pundits are saying it matters some.
James Fallows said something about the debate in passing that got my attention: “This is the best day the beleaguered Barack Obama has had in a while.” Think about that. I take it that Fallows is saying that the debate confirmed his impression that the Republican candidates are a pretty unimpressive lot. He probably has a point inasmuch as smart conservatives, like John Podhoretz, are saying substantially the same thing.
But what does Fallows’s remark say about Obama? By all accounts, the president is “beleaguered” primarily for two reasons: first, that part of his first-term agenda that he managed to get enacted isn’t nearly as popular (e.g,. ObamaCare) or effective as public-policy (e.g., the stimulus bill) as he expected it to be; and second, people across the political spectrum are figuring out that, whatever you think about his agenda, Obama hasn’t been all that good at implementing it.
The obvious escape route from his political predicament would be to come up with a more popular agenda, and show that he has the presidential chops to execute at least part of it effectively between now and November 2012. But no one across the political spectrum really expects that to happen. Obama hasn’t shown an inclination to reveal his governing priorities going forward with any specificity nor any signs that he’s going to get any better at bending the political process to his will.
So where does that leave the president? It’s becoming clearer by the day that, if he's headed for reelection, it’ll be because he’s very good at being Barack Obama, and enough voters are convinced Barack Obama is a better human specimen than his Republican challenger. His reelection pitch isn’t about what he proposes to do, but who he is: a guy who’s smarter, less doctrinaire and more open to compromise than the Republicans getting in his face. As such, he’s above ideology and party, neither a liberal nor a Democrat at heart, neither a Truman who'll punch Republicans in the teeth nor a Clinton who’ll pick their pocket.
Once you describe it out loud, does it sound like Obama's campaign pitch is going to work?