When I first heard the kerfuffle about the “Ground Zero Mosque,” I figured it would blow right over. Lower Manhattan is a big place, and there are plenty of establishments within a half dozen stone’s throws from Ground Zero. But American intolerance for Islam always does seem to sneak up on me. The story just keeps grabbing headlines as more and more politicians pipe up about it, including Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and President Obama, who outlined support for freedom of religion in development. The Politico’s Roger Simon even typed up a piece diagnosing Obama’s freedom of religion principle-based reaction as a sign that Obama just doesn’t get it. His assertion that Obama might “pull a Palin” and bow out before the end of the term was tongue-completely-in-cheek, Simon’s main accusation was serious:
The problem for Obama is that he appears to have taken seriously all the “change” stuff he promised during his campaign. And he has been unable to make the transition from candidate to president
What a cynical point! That voters who elected a “hope and change” president who promised to stand on principles won’t actually support him if he does it? It’s worth noting that Democrats could lose ground in 2010 without their 2008 voters actively opposing them; they can lose just by failing to bring in the huge level of less engaged citizens they depended on in their last victory. It doesn’t surprise me to see people making Roger Simon’s calculation though, even though my diagnosis would point in the opposite direction. When you have a candidate who promises to change the game, he can be judged both by how the game is played and by how others would like it to be played. Maybe this makes it twice as hard for Obama. Until he actually changes the game, the old rules still apply, and I agree Obama has not been very effective in changing the game. (Perhaps it’s not surprising that Obama is judged by the standard Capitol Hill rulebook, because as the NYT noted this week, he has framed himself as a president defined by legislative success or failure.)
Democrats are going to have a hard time of it this November, though I can’t speculate on 2012 yet. In 2008, they rode a surge of grassroots desperation for change and won big, even in districts not traditionally Democrat. In 2010 they would need at least as much effort to hang on to what they achieved, and I don’t see the grassroots organizational structure coming together. Sure, many progressives are concerned about what Republican gains would mean, but from the perspective of those waiting for a change in the game, the Democrats have done little to show they’re worth the “change” votes, and that cuts enthusiasm right out from under a public. From Obama’s investment bank-infused economic advisory team to the continuation of defense secretary Robert Gates’s tenure to a health care plan that owed a lot to the Republican alternatives offered in the 90’s to the failure to close Guantanamo and end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Obama has articulated few strong principles that illustrate he can bring the change people got enthusiastic about in 2008.
So it’s not surprising to see commentary where Obama is judged by the rules of the game he promised to instate. On the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart calls out the Democrats for lack of balls, asking:
After all, what did Obama promise liberals when he ran against Hillary Clinton? He promised that if he won, Democrats would no longer consult polls to decide what they believed.
The Democrats put themselves in a tough position, to be judged according to two standards at once. There’s no way to be positively judged from both Simon’s and Beinart’s perspective. Elections from 2006-2008 have been about Democrats, from Pelosi to Obama, promising that with a few more legislative seats they could bring real change and then not delivering after getting a few more seats. Democrats have huge majorities in the House and Senate and don’t have a strong legislative program record. It’s true Republican opposition and cohesion have increased with each gain the Democrats made, but at some point voter confidence that another Democratic seat is going to make the difference will falter. 2010 will see the same Democratic promises from the last two election years, but I don’t see it as enough to increase voter enthusiasm yet again this year.