Welcome to the Rorschach President

Politics, like economics, is rooted in psychology. That is a truism which no one can overcome with something as unpsycholgical as facts. When people are angry, confused, hopeless, and afraid, they fall back upon emotions to trump the facts, and then new realities are born. I think that’s the biggest threat to President Obama now, as it has been since the passage of the health care bill. The facts are on his side. The 2009 stimulus did some good and was largely paid back. Detroit was brought back from the brink of disaster. Banks were stabilized. The markets rebounded. But psychologically,  he has turned into a Rorschach test for disgruntlement and despair across the country.

Today Obama is in deep trouble on the economy and handling the deficit, according to the most recent Gallup poll. Although his overall approval rating stands at a healthy 52%, only 27% of respondents approve of the job  he’s doing on the deficit. If you look at newspaper editorials and their response to the President’s current proposed budget, they are all over the
map, with words like “encouraging” bouncing off other words like” cowardice.”

Last fall, when it appeared that the crushing midterm elections had put the  handwriting on the wall for a second term, it seemed reasonable to think of calling for a Democratic challenger to oppose Obama in 2012. Then at the last minute there was the so-called compromise on the Bush tax cuts, and perception shifted in the President’s favor. Yet as the current furor over budget cuts in Wisconsin demonstrates, the public outcry against reason and facts has reached a tidal level. The Tea Party is perceived by a swath of the electorate as the right movement for our time, and no amount of sane, adult talk is making any difference. It probably doesn’t matter who runs on the Democratic ticket in 2012. The Rorschach test has spoken.

As part of their Presidents Day polling, Gallup also revealed that Americans call Ronald Reagan the greatest President in history, followed by Lincoln and Bill Clinton. Reagan was a master of image over reality. He called for  lower taxes but raised taxes eleven times while in office. He called for smaller government while tripling the national debt. To bring reality back  into the picture, his successor, the first Pres. Bush, raised taxes again — the right and proper thing to do — and as a result public rancor cost  him a second term. The Republicans learned a shrewd lesson from this:  demagogue the issues and then do whatever you want. They nominated a second Pres. Bush who sailed through two terms while recklessly turning a budget surplus into a huge deficit, installing massive tax cuts for the rich, starting two ruinous wars, and dismantling federal regulation to the extent that his SEC allowed the housing bubble to run unabated.

Bad faith, it would seem, isn’t something Americans care about as long as image works. Obama is a good-faith President who is being punished for  speaking maturely and soberly about our complex problems, trying to cobble together a master plan for the future that, frankly, the majority of Americans cannot grasp. Such is the price of governing in bad times, but as  the examples of Reagan and the two Bushes demonstrate, mature sobriety hasn’t had much of a chance for a long time. In 2008, in the wake of economic catastrophe, mounting debt, and a hugely unpopular President whose chickens had finally come home to roost, barely 6% of the populace shifted to the Democrats, even though John McCain was one of the weakest Presidential candidates to be fielded in thirty years.

Now a beleaguered Obama finds himself moving toward the center, holding his head down as budget-slashers do their worst, and staring at a bleak political landscape as solidly Democratic states like Wisconsin are swept off to the right. In the past fifty years there have been only two balanced federal budgets, both under Bill Clinton, both the result of increased revenues rather than cuts in spending. Deficits are useful devices when it comes to the complexities of economics. But the public is deaf to such arguments right now.

For all his good faith, skill and intelligence, Obama’s only real hope is that the Republicans will nominate a radically unacceptable right winger in 2012. He should secretly start a PAC for Sarah Palin. Even then the devastated economy in the heartland probably means that no Democrat can carry Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. It is basically impossible to
win without them. With an all-Republican government in place, we may witness a tectonic shift in the federal government.Bad faith will have a field day. The bigger question is whether anyone can persuade the American public to make sacrifices in entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security as  well as deep cuts in the defense budget. The ideal person to reach a  reasonable, adult solution has always been Barack Obama. The person we get  in 2-12 might ride the whirlwind into office, and then deliver as Reagan did, through pure image over substance, bringing us closer to the brink while people smile all the way there.

Posted in the San Francisco Chronicle