Ronald Reagan once compared the flow of a presidency to the flow of a movie: Grab their attention at the beginning, coast for a while; then a big finale at the end. When he signs health-care reform in January, Barack Obama will have successfully completed Act One. Health care and the massive stimulus bill passed back in February represent the two most important pieces of progressive legislation in four decades. Domestically, Obama has had the most successful opening act of any president since Reagan himself.
Now comes the hard part. In passing health care, Obama spent his political capital almost down to the last dime. As much as I’d love Congress to pass cap and trade legislation to fight global warming, there’s probably not enough political bandwidth for a third piece of transformative legislation any time soon. (Especially one that threatens significant short-term economic pain in the middle of a deep recession.) So politically, Obama is going to have to spend 2010 doing what Reagan suggested: coasting. He’s going to have to satisfy himself with small, undramatic domestic accomplishments because if he doesn’t, he’s likely to experience large, dramatic defeats. Just as importantly, he’s going to have to lower expectations. In a new president’s first midterm elections, his party almost always loses, often big. And that’s especially true when the economy sucks. For Obama, part of coasting successfully will be absorbing that inevitable blow. That means convincing the press that a 25-seat Republican pickup in the House isn’t a personal repudiation or an ideological sea-change; it’s par for the course.
For the White House, in other words, it’s likely to be a gloomy, even ugly year. But for Obama, to survive is to win. If he ends 2010 with Congress still in Democratic hands and half the American public still sympathetic to him, he’ll be doing fine. In 2011 and 2012, as he begins to run for reelection, the economy will likely improve, and Americans will start comparing him to potential Republican presidential alternatives, which will cast him in a more flattering light. Coasting isn’t pretty, but if Obama makes the best of it, he’ll be in good shape for a big finish in 2012.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.