Wayne O’Leary


The American people, those who bothered to vote, have spoken. Hope and change are over, replaced (at least for the next two years) by pessimism and gridlock. Whether that remains the case depends on what President Obama and the Democrats have learned from their near-death experience — what, in short, they failed to do and need to do next time.

The principal reason for the overwhelming defeat is fairly obvious. No party was going to survive with its majority intact in a time of chronic high unemployment and general economic suffering. Until an answer for joblessness is found, all bets are off, and the White House, as well as the Senate, are in jeopardy for 2012. Having said that, it’s also obvious the Democrats, and the administration in particular, made things worse for themselves by a series of blunders and miscalculations that turned a manageable midterm loss in the range of 25 or 30 House seats into a disastrous squandering of 60-plus seats and majority control.

The first thing to be said about the Obama administration is that it’s abysmally bad at practical politics. When FDR implemented the National Recovery Act (NRA) in 1933, he saw to it that its Blue Eagle symbol appeared in store fronts and industrial plants everywhere as an indelible reminder to voters; when Obama passed health reform and the stimulus (30% of which remains unspent), he saw to it that most of the benefits would appear in distant out years, so that he realized minimal short-term advantage.

As a politician, the president makes a great law professor. He lacks the apparent ability to work the levers of power, impose his will or win the public to his cause. Lyndon Johnson was a master legislative arm twister and tactician; Franklin Roosevelt had Jim Farley to plot strategy and keep the troops in line. Obama had only Rahm Emanuel, now gone, and the Chicago Rasputin alienated as many people as he won over. Emanuel also authored the brain-dead strategy of building a fragile congressional majority by running Blue Dog conservatives who ultimately wouldn’t support a liberal Democratic program.

The president and the people around him are essentially policy wonks more comfortable with the minutia of legislation than with the sweaty work of factional governing. They were captured early on by the dreamy concept of bipartisanship. (There is no blue America or red America, only the United States of America, etc.) That’s a fatal misreading of this country’s political history; ideological conflict is the essence of our democratic system and has been ever since Jefferson first jousted with Hamilton over the philosophical direction of the new nation.

There’s nothing wrong with tactical compromise, as long as essential principles are not sacrificed. But Obama’s compromises have been made in pursuit of a will-o’-the-wisp. Bipartisanship became an end in itself, and the quest for it succeeded only in watering down the stimulus and the health and banking reforms until they were barely recognizable as effective liberal programs. The Republicans, by contrast, have always viewed compromise and bipartisanship as the president’s agreeing to their point of view.

What’s most disheartening to progressives is that after two years, Obama appears to have learned nothing. On the eve of the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress, he was still calling for bipartisan cooperation and signaling a readiness to acquiesce to Republican demands that he reduce entitlement spending and abandon his stated opposition to further tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. His apologetic stance seems to be: “I lost the midterms, so it’s incumbent upon me to move rightward and become conservative lite.” If that’s the case, it’s both a sign of weakness, and a recipe for personal defeat and for defeat of the progressive agenda.

Sadly, the president exhibits all the signs of having adopted the Clinton playbook. Bill Clinton, when his party lost the 1994 midterms, pivoted 180 degrees, hired the sleazy Dick Morris as adviser, and proceeded to govern from the center-right for the next six years. He triangulated with the Gingrich Congress, isolated and marginalized his own congressional Democrats, and helped enact Republican legislation, signing off on NAFTA, conservative welfare reform, bank deregulation (including the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which helped bring on the 2008 financial crash), and telecommunications reform (Looked at your cable bill lately?). It got him reelected in 1996, but nearly destroyed the Democrats as a coherent party in the process.

Harry Truman took the opposite tack. Confronted by the reactionary, post-New Deal House and Senate elected in 1946, he fought back. Truman used his veto power without reservation and famously campaigned against the Republican “do-nothing Congress,” winning the 1948 election and a permanent place in the folklore of American politics. Does Obama have that kind of fight in him? So far, it’s not in evidence.

Which brings us to the other main political shortcoming the president has exhibited over his first two years. There’s a cardinal rule in American politics he’s consistently ignored: Don’t disaffect your base; cultivate it. Obama’s progressive base furnishes his ground troops for the political campaign battle — those who ring the doorbells and man the phones. And they always vote, but not if they’re taken for granted or disrespected.

You don’t, for instance, call progressives “f*****g retarded,” or suggest they are drug-addled. You don’t cavalierly kiss off their passionate desire for a public option in healthcare reform, a highly symbolic demand that would have paid vast political dividends for Democrats irrespective of its practical impact. Most especially, you try to follow through on something like the Employee Free Choice Act to reward the base’s core component, organized labor. If Obama and his team value their survival, the days of dismissing their base with an attitude that says, Where else are they going to go? have to end.

It’s put-up or shut-up time for the Obama White House. Is it in the Democratic party’s long liberal tradition? Is it willing to fight for principle? Are there things it won’t surrender in the name of bipartisan compromise? Like sharks, Republicans scent blood in the water; they’re circling for the kill. Meanwhile, a soon-to-be-unemployed senator named Russ Feingold is attracting notice on the disenchanted Left. The president has six months, perhaps a year, to get his act together.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two books.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2010


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