What Obama Needs to Come Back: Luck

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

President Barack Obama makes a statement in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Nov. 30, 2010, about his meeting today with Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders.

The coalition that got Barack Obama elected President just two years ago has been shattered. Gaming out the trajectory of the next two years can be done any number of ways, but Obama's efforts to rebuild a politically robust alliance will be the most telling. It may be the biggest challenge of his career — and he will need happenstance along with skill if he is going to get it done.

A survey of the political landscape shows that many groups who were part of the 2008-09 Obama coalition have turned on him. Liberals believe he is an overcompromising wimp. (See blistering recent columns by progressive icons Paul Krugman and Frank Rich of the New York Times for a taste of what the left thinks of "their" President now.) The business community considers Obama ignorant about markets at best, a socialist at worst (O.K., some business people entertain an even harsher assessment). The media, after aiding and abetting his ride to the White House, now see the President as incompetent and overwhelmed. The independents and Republicans who backed him for office currently feel he is too liberal and too weak to do the job. These trends are all worse in Washington and among opinion leaders than they are in the country at large, but the views of elites are clearly shaping how the President is perceived by the nation in general.

With unemployment high and promising to stay there, it is nearly impossible in the short term for Obama to shift opinion and be seen as a successful President. But he can't achieve anything in 2011 and 2012, or get re-elected, unless he can win back support from some of his core groups.

The already tiresome debate about what Obama should do to launch a comeback tells only part of the story. Yes, he needs to show people what he stands for, fight for what he believes, compromise with Republicans when it's sensible, reshape his circle of advisers and focus on job growth and deficit reduction. But those are all tall orders, and they run counter to Obama's instincts, the political realities of American politics for the last generation, or both.

Even if the President somehow sloughs off that Spock-like laconic demeanor and dispatches his fired-up-and-ready-to-go persona, he isn't going to be able to change many of the dynamics that have weakened him. Republicans are emboldened by the results of the midterm elections and by their continued discipline and verve in driving the same message since Election Day (and likely well into 2011). They believe they can beat Obama for re-election and will stay on their winning path as long as it is working. Liberals, frustrated and rattled, are poised to cry betrayal whenever the President cooperates with the GOP. And the rancid freak show of the politico-media industrial complex is as toxic as ever.

Should Obama effectively confront these dynamics, he will still need some luck. Busy as he's been, he has not yet experienced a single major moment that has benefited him politically. The most dramatic events of his term — the BP oil spill, the passage of the health-care law, the arms-control agreement with Russia — have had either no impact or a negative influence on Obama's standing.

No one wants the country to suffer another catastrophe. But when a struggling Bill Clinton was faced with the Oklahoma City bombing and a floundering George W. Bush was confronted by 9/11, they found their voices and a route to political revival. Perhaps Obama's crucible can be positive — the capture of Osama bin Laden, the fall of the Iranian regime, a dramatic technological innovation that revitalizes American manufacturing — something to reintroduce him to the American people and show the strengths he demonstrated as a presidential candidate.

While he negotiates his way through the lame-duck session of Congress, prepares for his State of the Union address and budget, and braces for the new normals of 2011, the President had better figure out how to react when the moment comes. Without that moment — whatever it is — and strong leadership in its wake, Obama may find his luck has run out.

One Nation, Halperin's politics column for TIME.com, appears every Monday.