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Don't Sweat It

Obama sure looks to be in trouble, but we’ve seen this summertime hysteria before.

As the Dog Days of August descended upon us, there developed across the progressive chattering classes a deep sense of malaise bordering on depression, if not panic--much of it driven by fears about the leadership skills of Barack Obama. The polling numbers seemed to weaken every day, and Democratic unease was matched by growing glee on the airwaves of Fox and in Republican circles everywhere. 

Within ten weeks, however, Obama was elected president and joy returned to the land. 

Yes, dear reader, I am suggesting that this August's sense of progressive despair feels remarkably similar to last August's. This week last year, the Gallup Tracking Poll had McCain and Obama in a statistical tie. The candidates were fresh from a joint appearance at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, which was widely viewed by progressives as a strategic error by Obama. More generally, Democratic confidence, so high earlier in the year, was sagging. "Liberals have been in a dither for several weeks now over Barack Obama's supposedly listless campaign performance following his return from Europe," influential blogger Kevin Drum summed up sentiments at that time, "and as near as I can tell this turned into something close to panic." 

These doldrums dissipated by the time of the Democratic convention later in the month, but reemerged in September, when McCain actually moved ahead in some polls. And the diagnosis of the problem was typically that Obama was too passive, and wasn't articulating a clear enough message. This should sound familiar to connoisseurs of contemporary progressive concerns about Obama. 

Now, this deja vu sensation I'm having obviously doesn't guarantee that the current struggles over health care reform and climate change will have as happy an ending as the presidential contest. But it may well provide a plausible argument for giving the president the benefit of the doubt today as we should have done a year ago. 

Part of the psychological problem now may be a matter of unrealistic expectations. Much of the trouble Obama has encountered in promoting his agenda has been entirely predictable. His approval ratings are gradually converging with the 2008 election results. Health care reform is a complicated challenge that threatens a lot of powerful interests and unsettles people happy with their current coverage. Major environmental initiatives lose steam in a deep recession. A new administration gradually begins to assume blame for bad conditions in the country. Republicans, adopting a faux populist tone, are fighting Obama tooth and nail. Democratic activists are frustrated by compromises and sick of having to put up with the Blue Dogs. The Senate is still the Senate, a monument to inertia, pettiness, and strutting egos. 

Progressives are waiting for Barack Obama and his team to work the kind of political magic they seemed to work in 2008--except when they didn't. Cutting through all the mythologizing of the Obama campaign, the real keys to his stretch-run success last year were his legendary calm ("No Drama Obama"); his confidence in his own long-range strategy; his ability to choose competent lieutenants and delegate to them abundantly; and his grasp of the fundamentals of public opinion and persuasion. There was zero sense of panic in the Obama campaign itself late last summer, because they stuck with their strategy and organization and didn't let the polls or news cycles force them off the path they had chosen. 

The administration's demure approach should thus not be terribly surprising, nor a sign that it has lost its heart or its mind. Obama has not, presumably, lost the qualities he showed in the tougher moments of the 2008 campaign. As it planned its legislative agenda for 2009, Team Obama knew health care reform was going to be challenging, and also knew they could probably get away with blaming the economic emergency for paring it back or slowing it down. They decided this was the right time to act, and it's far too soon to assume they were wrong. 

This particular moment might be more endurable if, as it used to be, August was a political and legislative dead zone. We'd all get a breather, maybe calm down and look ahead to the real deal going down in the fall. But the "August Doesn't Matter" era has ended--perhaps dating back to the grand jury testimony in the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal in August 1998, if not earlier. (It arguably began to fade when Washington got air-conditioning.) Now, even if nothing substantive is actually happening this month, the absence of action is itself painful, and feels like defeat. 

While I certainly don't know if the Obama game plan for the next couple of months is going to be successful, I'm reasonably sure a game plan exists. On the issue most on everyone's mind, I certainly don't know how to reconcile the sharply contrasting demands of House Democrats and Senate "centrists" on sticking points like the public option. But the odds remain good that the House will pass a bill, the Senate will pass a bill, and then we will find out if the White House and the Democratic congressional leadership have the skill to make something happen that we will be able to recognize as "change," and perhaps even a victory for progressives. Until then, it's probably a good idea to drink a tall glass of cold water and wait out the August political heat.

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a frequent contributor to a variety of political journals.