President Obama’s greatest political failure during his first two years was his inability to convince most Americans, especially most white Americans, that an activist federal government could provide them greater opportunity and security. Paradoxically, because of that failure, he will now get a second chance to make his case.
The Republican House majority that took power this week will bring to Washington what could be called the “Benjamin Button” Congress. Film (and literature) fans will recall that Benjamin Button lived his life backward, from old to young. Likewise, in the months ahead, Washington will relive many of the debates of Obama’s first two years—only in reverse, as the new GOP majority tries to unravel his key policy achievements.
The general assumption in Washington is that this dynamic will place Obama on the defensive through 2012. And it’s undeniably true that the president will be forced to fight many rearguard actions to protect such initiatives as health care reform. But early indications are that the White House also sees these Benjamin Button debates as a chance to take the offense for 2012—and to launch a renewed and reframed effort to contrast Obama’s vision of government’s role with that of the ascendant congressional Republicans. As David Axelrod, Obama’s chief White House political strategist, argued in a recent interview, 2010 unfolded largely as a referendum on Obama’s performance, but in 2012 “voters will be faced with a choice. And I view that as an opportunity.”