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Inside the Beltway

The Dichotomy Between Obama’s Mind and Skills

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

As I watched President Obama deliver his State of the Union Address a few weeks ago, it struck me: Here is a man who has the noblest intentions but — by his own admission — lacks the skills to meet his own expectations.

Historians will probably write that he had extraordinary character and intellect but not the ability to persevere on the muddy playing field of national and international politics. In other words, he was a right honorable gentleman, to use British parliamentary lingo, but he lacked the instincts and savvy that great presidents have.

He admitted as much when he said, “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

The self-deprecation came late in the speech. Earlier he took a not-so-veiled swipe at his Republican critics when he remarked, “After all, it’s not much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber.”

Of course, when it comes to partisan rancor, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Republicans, who have controlled the House of Representatives since 2011, called a vote to repeal Obamacare so many times, I’ve lost count. They knew each time that either Democrats in the Senate would kill the repeal legislation or the president would veto it. They did it just to score political points.

Washington is where the blame game is playing out, but it’s state capitals where the seeds of hyper-partisanship were sown. State legislators and governors conspired to gerrymander districts that created safe seats for each political party, removing all incentives for cooperation across the aisle in Washington.

Following the 2010 election, Republicans gained single-party control of 21 state governments (house, senate, and governorship), relegating Democrats to just 10. In most states, legislatures and governors control the redistricting that occurs following each decadal census. And in 2011, Republicans took full advantage of their position — as Democrats had done many times before — setting the stage for decade-long GOP domination of the House of Representatives.

President Obama was dealt a lousy hand by the financial collapse of 2008 and the “Great Recession” that followed. But he has to bear responsibility, in large part, for the 2010 election that swept Republicans into power across the country.

He entered office in 2009 with what he saw as a mandate for change, having won 365 of 538 electoral votes in the presidential election. He also entered office with his eyes set on two bold initiatives: enacting universal health care legislation and tackling climate change.

Despite his obvious intellect, he was a political novice. And although many of the pros in Washington—including Rahm Emanuel, his then chief of staff—cautioned him that such grandiose legislative goals demanded bipartisan buy-in, he elected to go it alone with his sizable Democratic congressional majorities. To make matters even worse politically, he pushed his groundbreaking legislation at a time when the nation was suffering economically.

He was able to ram the contentious Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) through both chambers without a single Republican vote, and he succeeded in mustering 219 House votes for the equally contentious America Clean Energy and Security Act (Waxman-Markey bill) with only eight Republicans supporting it. Waxman-Markey ultimately died in the Senate, but Obama was able to go to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference boasting at least partial success.

The president had a blockbuster first year: In addition to health care and climate change legislation, he shepherded the $787-billion economic stimulus plan and the $80-billion auto bailout. But he paid for his lack of political savvy in 2010, when voters turned their backs on him and handed control of the House over to Republicans, led by a phalanx of tea party newcomers. His presidential life has been a misery since.

Had his skills matched his mind, it would have been a boon for science, because there has been no president in my memory who had a greater passion and appreciation for science. He has elevated science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the White House to levels I have never seen. And he has used his bully pulpit to take the case for science to the public.

Even in his State of the Union address he used science to highlight the importance of immigration reform, when he said, “I see [our future unfolding] in the Dreamer who stays up late at night to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early, and maybe with some extra supplies that she bought because she knows that that young girl might someday cure a disease.”

It may be many years before we see another occupant of the White House who values science as much as President Obama. Perhaps the next one will also have the political skills to implement a STEM agenda more effectively.

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