As GOP field sorts itself out in Iowa, Obama still must sort out his own role

The public expects much more in the way of leadership than it has been receiving from the president.

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President Barack Obama talks to the nation about the debt-limit talks.

The public expects much more in the way of leadership than it has been receiving from the president.

The national political headlnes at mid-August: Obama stalled and popularity fading. Republican presidential-candidate field sorting itself rapidly. Voters anxious and fed up with everyone.

After last weekend's Iowa Republican candidate debate and straw poll, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who entered the field only Saturday (Aug. 13), appear inexorably headed toward a three-way showdown once caucuses and primaries begin early in 2012.

President Barack Obama, with his worst approval ratings ever, took a strange campaign swing at a time when it seemed more appropriate for him to be in the Oval office preparing a financial/economic package for presentation to the American people and Congress. More below.

First, let's look at the Republicans. A disappointing straw-poll showing drove former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty from the Republican race and his role as a moderate-Republican backup to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In the remaining field, only Romney now carries the moderate, establishment banner. Heckers are already being planted at Romney public events.

Minnesota Rep. and Tea Party leader Michele Bachmann won the straw poll and remains the favorite not only of Tea Partiers butof social conservatives and cable-news talking heads, who appear beguiled by her. Investigative reporting, however, is revealing some big cracks in the Bachmann facade; her opponents no doubt will exploit them soon. (See the profile in the current issue of The New Yorker). Barring an outright scandal or big public glitch, though, she appears likely to hold her position as one of three GOP finalists next year.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his candidacy in South Carolina, then promptly flew to Iowa for a Republican event Sunday opposite Bachmann. Reports from the Waterloo event indicate that Perry outshone Bachmann. Perry campaigned in traditional retail style, sitting for a time at each table at the event, mingling with attendees, and staying start to finish. Bachmann, by contrast, arrived late, surrounded by security staff, and departed abruptly after her own speech. "Wasn't this a wonderful event?" Bachmann said during her speech. "How would she know?" an attendee was quoted as saying, "she wasn't here but a moment."

We're getting an early picture of these three. Romney already is well known to us after his runnerup run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. He is presenting himself as the former governor of a heavily Democratic state and as someone who knows finance, economics, and the private sector — the man to engineer economic revival. Bachmann has adopted a celebrity persona, carefully controlling her media and public exposure, with calculated cultivation of her image as nice but a tough leader unwilling to compromise on issues of basic principle. Perry is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get, big-hatted Texas governor in the John Connally/George W. Bush tradition. Like Bachmann, he unapologetically puts his fundamentalist religious affiliation out front. But his principal arguing point will be Texas' prosperity during his term of office as compared to distress in the rest of the country. Also, like Bachmann, he soon will be subject to investigative probing, mainly focused in his case on crony Texas dealmaking out of the governor's mansion in Austin.

Romney and Perry will have lots of traditional political money to see them through the 2012 campaign season. Bachmann, short of a stumble, will raise hers populist style, in smaller sums, from Tea Party and social-conservative believers.

The other Republican candidates, unfortunately for them, have their own defined but more limited bases among GOP voters and more limited access to campaign money.

They are likely to drop quite quickly from the race once early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina begin. How is it possible that such credentialed candidates as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Ambassador to China John Huntsman could be quickly pushed to the wayside? That is just the way it happens. Who would have predicted, for instance, that Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, all experienced and well known in national Democratic politic, would be kicked to the curb so soon in the 2008 Democratic presidential-nominating contest? If you are not the first-choice favorite of a substantial, defined constituency and lack enough money to stay the long nominating course, you are gone, no matter your qualifications or experience.

Now, for the Democrats: Obama's approval ratings hit 39 percent, an all-time low for him, in a Gallup tracking poll Sunday. With economic distress continuing, and the U.S. still committed in three unpopular foreign interventions, his re-election chances would seem minimal.

But it is conceivable that Republicans could nominate either Bachmann or Perry, who would be quite vulnerable in a general-election contest, and thus make Obama seem a less risky choice. That is the Democrats' hope, in any case, and the reason why White House fire presently is aimed at Romney, who would be a far stronger general-election candidate. Knock Romney down now, the thinking goes, and maybe we'll get lucky with a GOP nominee who unsettles or scares independent and moderate voters.

Hecklers at a Romney appearance last weekend tried to make him appear a corporate lackey or heartless would-be cutter of Social Security and Medicare. Characterizations of Romney as "weird" are meant to call attention to his Mormonism, which worries voters in southern and border states in particular.

Obama, at least for now, is attempting to position himself as on the side of the people and perplexed by the inadequate performance of "the Congress," without distinguishing between legislators of his own party and those of the opposition.

Over the weekend, Obama attacked Congress's tardiness in passing three pending international trade treaties, even though the White House has not yet submitted the treaties for ratification. He also repeated his assertions that we'd have dealt more effectively with our long-term debt crisis if only Congress had acted more effectively during debt-ceiling negotiations. Yet, during those negotiations, lawmakers of both parties had to resolve the matter themselves after Obama effectively withdrew from bargaining.

My own take: The president is pursuing unproductive and literally incredible themes. Informed voters remember the old dictum that "the president proposes; the Congress disposes." Obama, during the course of his term, has generally left drafting of financial bailout, stimulus, health-care, and other key legislation to Democratic congressional leaders while adopting a role for himself of general cheerleader. He appointed a debt-reduction commission that, in 2010, presented sensible and balanced proposals but he then walked away from its recommendations and did not submit them to Congress. In the recent debt-ceiling dealing, he adopted a neutral, arbiter's posture, as if policymaking had nothing to do with him but only with the Congress.

Voters, in my judgment, simply will not accept this any longer. The country remains in financial and economic trouble. Citizens look to their president to present practical proposals to get past the trouble. They will not accept explanations, as he offered last week, that "down the road I'll be presenting some ideas" to address the trouble. The suspicion continues that Obama believes he can play for time until the bipartisan congressional Gang of 12 comes up with its Thanksgiving debt-reduction proposals and, then, present himself once again as arbiter.

It won't work. Nearly three years into his presidency, Obama has taken ownership of the prevailing conditions in the country. It is now his job to frame fresh proposals, to present them to the country and Congress, and to lead.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of