There was no strategy that could have prevented the Republican shellacking of the Democrats in the midterm elections given the enormous pain and suffering millions of Americans are experiencing due to the “Great Recession.” Republicans not only seized control of the House of Representatives, they also elected more governors and gained control of legislatures in a number of states. The election was a disastrous moment for the Democrats and President Barack Obama. Clearly, the promise of “hope and change” turned sour for a large percentage of the people who bothered to vote. That said, contrary to Tea Party and conservatives claims, I am not convinced that voters were “sending a message” to President Obama and the Democrats to reduce the size of government, cut taxes and reduce regulation on business. Voters may have bought into the hype to some degree, but the overriding issue by far was the stagnant economy and persistently high unemployment. If the economy had improved and the unemployment numbers had dropped even modestly, the Democrats would have lost some ground as is customary in mid-term elections, but we would not be having a conversation about a rout of historic proportions.
This brings me to the lessons gleaned from the debacle of 2010. From the outset of his administration, President Obama failed to articulate a clear vision around a theme, phrase or slogan that the American people could grasp and understand. Coming off such a brilliant and inspiring campaign, his inaugural address was notable for the absence of any memorable phrase or theme that captured the essence and meaning of the “change” he promised. Unfortunately, this failure to communicate his vision, program and policies has become an impediment to galvanizing the American people in an hour of grave crisis. Moreover, President Obama displayed a consistent propensity to prematurely compromise with the opposition party. In that regard, I find the oft repeated assessment by pundits and analysts that President Obama needs to “move to the center” utterly laughable.
Repeatedly, in the interest of demonstrating “bipartisanship,” Obama has compromised before boldly staking out a liberal-progressive position. For example, on the stimulus bill, rather than begin with a $1.2 trillion package as many economists, including Paul Krugman, suggested to jolt the economy back to life, the President presented an $890 billion package. He then shaved $785 billion as a concession to induce just two Republican senators to vote for the final bill. Moreover, as a concession to Republicans, about 40% of the package was dedicated to tax cuts even though many economists contend that tax cuts do not stimulate as much as other measures, e.g., infrastructure repair. Indeed, I have suggested that President Obama and the Democrats set themselves up for failure by proposing a package that was too small and insufficient to create enough jobs fast enough to avoid the appearance of stagnation. As it became apparent that the economy was not going to make a miraculous recovery, Republicans, who demanded that the stimulus package be much smaller than required to achieve the desired effect, defined the effort as a failed government-spending spree.
Not only was the Stimulus package too small, other measures the Obama administration implemented seemed designed to bailout Wall Street more than to aid beleaguered people on Main Street. One might argue that the Wall Street and auto bailouts prevented the economy from going over the cliff. However, the administration did not put forth a bold and sustained program to assist victims of the scandal that triggered the Great Recession – the subprime mortgage meltdown. The Obama administration caved in to conservative arguments that the victims were responsible for taking out bad loans. Accordingly, they adopted timid measures that were woefully inadequate to stop the human hemorrhaging in terms of millions of foreclosures on decent, hard working families who saw homes, savings and the American dream evaporate through no fault of their own. This virtual abandonment of Main Street in favor of Wall Street no doubt contributed to the uncertainty, anger and frustration in the country. The Tea Party and conservatives skillfully exploited these anxieties by pointing to “big government” as opposed to “big business” as the villain.
Progressives continue to debate whether President Obama should have taken on health care in light of the weak economy. Whichever way one comes down on this question, what is noteworthy is that President Obama repeated the same mistake with health care reform that he did with the stimulus package. He started in the middle/center with a set of proposals calculated to appease Republicans, rather than vigorously articulating the vision and rationale for a single payer plan that he embraced in the campaign. He did not argue for single payer or for a public option. Had he genuinely started on the left, educating the country about the merits of single payer, he might have at least been successful in winning support for a public option. In the end, what passed resembled a Mitt Romney type Massachusetts plan that delivered millions of new clients to the insurance companies. The Republicans/conservatives promptly branded it Obama Care and a “socialist, government takeover.”
President Obama has also been terribly inattentive to the liberal-progressive wing and major constituencies within the Democratic Party. As a general proposition, progressives would have felt much better if he had fought first and compromised later on key issues like the stimulus package, health care, the foreclosure crisis and financial regulatory reform. I start from the premise that one of the responsibilities of the President as head of a political party is to articulate a vision/philosophy and advance a policy agenda that enhances the influence, capacity and power of the base constituencies and allies of your party. This is precisely what Bush and Cheney did over an eight-year period. Obama not only refused to advance a more liberal/progressive position on the issues enumerated above, the Freedom of Choice Act (labor), immigration policy reform (Latinos/Caribbean), “Don’ Ask Don’t Tell” (Lesbian and Gay) and targeted jobs/economic programs (Blacks) were not emphasized or given only lukewarm support. Democrats offered the Dream Act, legislation that would have inched the immigration reform agenda forward, as an amendment in the final hours before Congress adjourned in order to help the beleaguered campaign of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The amendment was defeated. Like other initiatives of importance to liberals and progressives, Obama signaled his willingness to compromise the Freedom of Choice Act from the outset. When Congress refused to take up “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” progressives wondered why the President simply did not end it by Executive Order. In addition, there has been ongoing frustration among Black leaders that the President simply refuses to embrace the idea that targeting jobs and economic programs is the best way to address the “state of emergency” in urban Black communities across the country. If you want your base to be “enthusiastic,” you cannot take it for granted or admonish your supporters to “stop whining” when they complain about the lack of attention to its agenda. You have to feed the base to keep it “fired up.”