On Obama’s wake-up call

obama hope posterJudging by yesterday’s results, the only thing Americans hate more than Big Government is Big Government that doesn’t protect them in times of economic adversity. Four years ago, the unemployment rate was below five per cent. Now, it is just below ten per cent. The failure of a listless recovery to improve living standards and job security saw voters either stay home yesterday, or gather in force to take revenge.

In the process, the Democrats have lost control of the House, and seen their grip on the Senate reduced to a slim majority. In the process, any faintly glimmering hopes that the Key government may have of a free trade pact with the US – either directly, or via the Trans Pacific Partnership pact – are almost certainly over. While the right in New Zealand exhibits pathetic faith in a US trade pact as a Holy Grail that will magically transform our economy ( and without any of the poisonous costs that the Australians have experienced in the wake of their US trade pact !) the populist right in the US regard such pacts as evil, and the enemy of American farmers and jobs. The cap and trade proposals on climate change urged by the Obama administration – and since shelved – have also been a factor in some defeats for the Democrats, both in Virginia and in the rust belt regions of Ohio and Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Though the Democrats lost the House by a wide margin, the Senate result is still somewhat up in the air. If the Dems’ Michael Bennet in Colorado and Washington’s Patty Murray hold onto their election night leads, the Democratic majority will be a close but comfortable 53-47. (Murray will almost certainly win through, since most of the outstanding votes are in a county where she is already winning 62-38) For the Republicans, winning both races would produce a 51/49 cliffhanger, and they could then hope to lure two ultra conservative Democrats (Joseph Lieberman and Ben Nelson) across the aisle, and gain a Senate majority as well. At 53/47 that won’t happen.

As things currently stand, this is still the biggest mid-term swing since 1948. Much of that result – as I’ve suggested above – is due to this being an election held in the context of a bad economic climate, with voting turnout skewed towards Republican-friendly older white voters, who proceeded to lop off the low-hanging fruit produced in conservative districts by previous Democratic landslides of 2006 and 2008. (While voting among the young, Hispanics and black voters were all down from their 2008 levels, turnout among those 65 and over went up from 16% of the electorate in 2008 to 23% yesterday.)

Much has been made of the Tea Party’s impact, which was twofold. It energized the centre right voting bloc overall, even as it pulled the centre to the right. Moderate Republicans got squeezed out. That may hurt them in 2012. In the process, the Tea Party held up a target – Big Government – for voters to focus their anger. The negativism of the Tea Party movement was mirrored in the negativism of elected Republicans in Washington, who rejected wholesale the non-partisan politics of hope and transformation that got Barack Obama elected in 2008.

By spurning any offers of compromise and co-operation – even when involved the rescue of the American economy from the worst recession since WW11 – the Republicans have essentially made the US ungovernable. Could Obama have counter-attacked any more successfully with his own brand of partisanship? It certainly would have made the Democratic base feel better, As Mark Schmitt pointed out two weeks ago in The American Prospect, the Obama style of governance – based on pragmatism and a willingness to forego partisan positions to forge compromise deals – has run aground on the tactical intransigence of the GOP.

The Obama presidency isn’t over, but his theory of governing — that change is possible by bridging partisan differences and enacting incremental policies that would pave the way for bigger proposals — is defunct. What comes next?

Judged by its utility, Obama’s bipartisan approach was not as naive as it now seems. It got him elected and was particularly important to younger voters who are notably put off by partisanship and incivility. Obama’s good-faith effort to find common ground was also legislatively useful with wavering Democrats, especially those from red states, who wanted to be seen as moderates.

While the post-partisan posture had its uses, it also had a vulnerability. All it took to break Obama’s brand was to deny his promise of changed politics. Once Republican obstruction began to have a political payoff, it was unstoppable. The public came to perceive health-care reform, which looked a lot like classic Republican proposals, as the fulfillment of a far-left wish list, and younger voters became disillusioned by the unchanging viciousness, narrowness, and corruption of congressional politics. While Obama struggled to keep that promise, it was not his promise to keep.

Being dragged into the mire of legislative governance — endlessly compromising, explaining details, and making ugly deals — taxes a presidency’s transformative promise. But what’s the alternative? Paul Krugman’s suggestion is to pick big ideological fights, draw sharp contrasts with opponents, and be unafraid to lose. All of that sounds satisfyingly tough-minded. Like any counterfactual history, it has the advantage of being untested. If Obama had insisted on an economic stimulus of $1.2 trillion or more, and lost, would he now be seen as the populist fighter who had the answer to the recession but got blocked by the evil Republicans? Or just as the hapless president who couldn’t get a bill passed? There’s a word for presidents who can’t get legislation passed, and it’s not “winner.”

Even so, pragmatism and compromise haven’t left Obama looking like a winner, either. Looking ahead, the results yesterday have left a quite different Democratic Party standing in the ruins. Liberal leaders such as Russ Feingold, Tom Perriello and Alan Grayson have been lost, but on the right of the party so have many of the conservative Blue Dogs – whose own reluctance to endorse their own party’s agenda had been just as crippling as Republican opposition, no matter how the Blue Dogs could rationalize their stance as being a realistic recognition of the conservatism of their constituents.

Yesterday, the electorate chose to replace even the Blue Dogs with dyed in the wool conservatives – and some projections made a few days before the vote, estimated that this winnowing process would reduce the Blue Dog component in the Democratic caucus from around 21% to 13%. In that respect at least, a reduced Democratic Senate presence will have the advantage of being less ideologically diffuse. However, the simultaneous loss of its most able liberal voices will also make it harder for the Democrats to create and support progressive policies.

Between now and 2012, the only thing that can save the Obama presidency – short of picking a war against Iran, as is being urged by Washington Post columnist David Broder, who has been channeling the Reagan-era ideologue Elliott Abrams – is economic recovery. From now until 2012, you can bet that the Republicans will be still blithely trying to run as Washington outsiders, even though they now control the House of Representatives. Yet the politics of negativism and gridlock can only take the Republicans so far. Two further years on and during a presidential election year, voters will be looking for answers, as well as to apportion blame. And so far the Republicans have only the failed policies of tax cuts and de-regulation to offer.

Rather than attack his own base as unrealistic – which he and his advisers have done relentlessly – Obama will now need to give them some victories, even if only symbolic ones. Rolling back the wiretapping/detention/rendition excesses of the Bush administration would be a useful start. Beyond that, a 53/47 Senate majority need not necessarily result in legislative gridlock. Democrats can still prevail with those numbers if they are willing to play rough. In 2003 remember, George W. Bush passed massive tax cuts for the rich with no popular mandate and with only 50 Senate votes, plus the vice-president’s vote. The Democrats can do likewise. This morning though, Obama is still talking about the politics of compromise, and of reaching out to the Republicans.


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