A few months ago, I sat with some friends in a pizza place in Chapel Hill, N.C., engaged in my own version of a “beer summit.” A successful Connecticut entrepreneur, a Wall Street executive, and a retired senior bank officer pummeled me with questions about my support of President Obama. Politically outnumbered, I ended up playing defense most of the night.
I get myself into these situations because my conversion from moderate, middle-aged, Southern conservative to Obama campaign foot soldier got splashed all over the Web after an opinion piece I wrote for the Monitor went viral and briefly turned me into a liberal darling. The questions I was getting that night were not the Sarah Palin-like “So how’s that hopey, changey thing workin’ out for ya?” kind of question. These were insightful questions from intelligent friends interested in a constructive dialogue about politics.
The problem for Mr. Obama and Democrats is that it’s not just Republicans asking questions anymore. Two years ago, 52 percent of independents backed Obama. Today, according to an Associated Press poll, just 3 in 10 say they want Democrats to retain control of Congress. Nine in 10 say the economy is the No. 1 problem, and more trust Republicans to deal with it. What happened?
Campaign promises vs. reality
In 2008, independents backed Obama because they believed he would end the war in Iraq, focus on growing the economy, improve the standing of the United States in the world, and raise the quality of debate in Washington in order to solve problems facing the country.
Though Obama campaigned on “shifting” resources away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan, independents are questioning the wisdom of his surge in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has admitted there is no military solution to the challenges facing the people of Iraq or Afghanistan. We need to get our troops home.
As the economic crisis deepened in 2009, centrist Obama supporters questioned the administration strategy of going “all in” on health-care reform. Eager for a needed focus on jobs but seeing value in healthcare reform, those in the political center were frustrated that Obama spent so much political capital to end up with a bill that is so much less than we hoped. It didn’t help that congressional Democrats hijacked the process and demanded outrageous special favors, eroding the president’s effort to take the moral high ground.
Cheers for Secretary Clinton
On the positive side, I and many other swing voters applaud Obama’s inspired choice of Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State. She deserves a great deal of the credit for the change in the way the world views US foreign policy. Our allies now see us through the lens of partnership and thoughtfulness, a radical shift from the perceived unilateralism of the Bush administration. Continued engagement with the world community can only bring long-term benefits to US security interests abroad and economic growth at home.
Despite his best efforts, the president has failed to turn party politics into bipartisan governance. This failure is obviously not his alone. Leading members of the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle share the blame for failing to address the issues that matter most. Americans are appalled at the political games in Washington.
Republicans shouldn't rejoice
As Act I of the Obama presidency comes to a close, centrists still have many questions. The good news for Obama and Democrats is that many of us (and there are many; 4 in 10 adults say they are independent) have just as many questions about, and frustrations with, the Republicans.
Democrats are bracing for a bruising battle in November. If Republicans win big, Act II could be rocky.
As anyone who has sat through a Shakespeare play knows, the second act can be long and painful, and the hero often faces setbacks. But if the hero can get back to what got him elected, I and other centrists will stick by him – and Democrats will get a chance to star in Part II of the Obama presidency.
Whatever happens in November, I’ll be back with my friends in Chapel Hill. Basketball season is just around the corner.
Jonathan Curley is a banker.