So, beyond the anemic economy, why do the latest polls show the former Massachusetts governor in a dead heat with the president? Because Obama’s administration made three crucial errors that enabled the Republican obstructionism that has tied his hands for the past two years, with GOP leaders shooting down any idea — even if it’s one of their own — that might have helped the president strengthen the economy. And those mistakes have made possible what was unimaginable in January 2009: that a private-equity baron lacking a sense of noblesse oblige, and preaching the gospel of deregulation and lower taxes for the rich, might actually win the presidency four years after those policies led to the collapse of the U.S. economy.
Obama’s first mistake was inviting the Republicans to the table. The GOP had just decimated the economy and had been repudiated by voters to such an extent that few Americans wanted to admit that they were registered Republicans. Yet Obama, with his penchant for unilateral bipartisanship, refused to speak ill of what they had done. The American people wanted the perpetrators of the Great Recession held accountable, and they wanted the president and Congress to enact legislation to prevent Wall Street bankers from ever destroying the lives of so many again. Instead they saw renewed bonuses — and then they saw red. Republicans learned very quickly that they could attack Obama and his agenda with impunity. Only at election time, or when he’s up against the ropes, does this president ever tell a story with a villain.
The second mistake was squandering the goodwill that Americans felt toward the new president and their anxiety about an economy hemorrhaging three-quarters of a million jobs a month. That combination gave Obama, at the beginning of his term, a power to shape public policy that no one since Franklin Roosevelt had held. But instead of designing a stimulus that reflected the thinking of the country’s best economic minds, he cut their recommended numbers by a third and turned another third into inert tax cuts designed to appease Republican legislators whose primary aim was to defeat him. He stimulated the economy — but just enough to leave the results open to interpretation, rendering questionable what should have been an uncontested success.
Obama compounded the problem a year into his presidency, when corporate profits were on the rise while job creation wasn’t. The Senate was considering a jobs program much like one the House had passed. But Obama refused to throw his support behind it. To do so, he would have had to articulate a vision in which government sets the conditions for the private sector to create prosperity and jobs, and steps in when the private sector can’t — or when it works against the interests of ordinary Americans. It’s a vision in which leadership means knowing when to step up and when to step back, not simply passively riding the waves of market failures, business cycles and bubbles — the vision that unites Herbert Hoover, George W. Bush and Romney.