For all the daily ritual surrounding his pronouncements, the panoply of his office, and the 24-hour coverage from a coagulated media entourage, it now seems undeniable that for the moment Americans aren’t listening to Barack Obama.
Amid the gathering midterm storm, Obama, who knows presidents have to do more than one thing at a time, comes to the United Nations and delivers a compelling speech on Middle East peace. For the moment at least, it seems the Israelis and Palestinians are paying attention.
But when he turns to his role as campaigner in chief—in which he’s the only conceivable force for lifting darkness in November—he speaks, and the words are recorded and reported, but they don’t seem to reach voters, refire the base, or revive his party’s prospects in the polls.
The national tide has to be turned because otherwise the wave will swamp or at minimum endanger even secure Democratic candidates. For example, not only is three-term Sen. Russ Feingold 10 points behind in Wisconsin, but think of this stunning and sudden development: On Thursday morning, The New York Times led with a front page story, admittedly relying on someone else’s polling—an unusual move for the paper—to report that Andrew Cuomo was a bare six points ahead of a Republican nominee for governor who’s as ridiculous as he is rich.
On the day before he took Manhattan, the president tried to make his case on the hot button issue of health care by taking it into a warm backyard in suburban Falls Church, Va. When he sat down to answer questions about the new health reform from “regular people,” he was eloquent and persuasive. But most coverage focused on the medium, not the message: Obama was trying to reconnect with Americans by getting out of the Rose Garden. No one bothered to note that in the television era, presidents from Kennedy to Reagan to Clinton touched and rallied the nation regularly from the precincts of the White House. (You always have to worry about campaigns that regard the setting as more important than the summons.)
Two weeks ago, the president did give a couple of speeches drawing powerful dividing lines between the two parties. The speeches now look more like one-offs than the kickoff of a serious narrative. His press conference soon afterward sounded more professorial than presidential, more a dry and logical exercise than a rallying cry.
All this has provoked increasingly vocal complaints among dispirited Democrats that this Obama, so compelling in 2008, has now lost his voice in the bully pulpit of the presidency. Partly this is both unfair and inevitable. The slowness and uncertainty of the economic recovery blur the credibility of whatever the president says—especially about the “successes” of the past two years, as remarkable as they are, or this week’s declared end to the recession, which still feels very real, very grim, and very threatening in people’s lives.
Barack Obama will never convert the 30 percent or so of Americans who’ve been hostile to him from the start. (His approval rating on Inauguration Day was 68 percent.) But for the rest of the country, the independents he’s lost and the base voters who are unenthused and unlikely at this point to vote in November, what he needs is a sustained message about the future, not the past, a message that casts the choice and contrasts the parties—Democrats for the middle class, Republicans for the powerful and the privileged. In the new Democracy Corps poll from Stan Greenberg, that message—with the battle lines drawn on the Bush tax cuts for the rich, GOP softness and special favors for Wall Street, and their defense of tax breaks for corporations moving jobs overseas—transformed a seven-point Democratic deficit in the midterms into a nine-point Democratic advantage.
That’s too much to hope for; a social science exercise can’t be exactly replicated wholesale in the real world of politics. But here is a platform on which to stand and fight and save seats and maybe the House as well as the Senate. But such an appeal won’t cut through unless it has sharp edges.
So the president, who’s in the right place on policy, has to overcome his own temperamental aversion to the populist politics of Us versus Them. A tepid, balanced, on-again, off-again approach, seasoned by laments about why we can’t all just get along, can’t blunt or break through the anger and frustration that may deliver protest votes and victory to a Republican Party whose only strategy is to be un-incumbent.
The president, who’s the only hope for bending the arc of the midterm, has to overcome not only his own modulating instincts, but the divisions within his own panicked party. Dozens of House Democrats have signed a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi opposing a vote to end the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent, while making the tax cuts permanent for the middle class. Instead, they urge extending all the Bush tax cuts—for now. Republicans leaders are fiercely resisting a pre-midterm vote that would put their members on record as tribunes of the few against the rest of America—which should, but doesn’t, convince the dunderheaded among the Democrats that if the other guys don’t want it, maybe you should.
If congressional Democrats can’t come together and fight on progressive ground, let them go home and give the president a chance to rescue the party by taking the issue to the country. He will be heard if he does—and especially if he proposes to reallocate the proceeds of ending the top-tier tax giveaway to an additional two-year tax cut for ordinary Americans. This is good policy and good politics: It would speed the recovery and set the choice in even starker terms. I can hear Obama on the stump asking the middle class to help him fight and win for them.
He has even more ammunition with the Republican “Pledge to America” issued this Thursday. It should be called “Pledge to the Special Interests.” It would spend $700 billion on those Bush tax windfalls for the wealthy, while cutting spending to 2008 levels on what’s conveniently referred to as “discretionary federal spending.” In real words, this would slash education, medical research, disaster relief—you name it—to comfort the comfortable. The GOP also proposes to abruptly stop all remaining stimulus spending. The president doesn’t have to use that phrase, but assail this anti-Keynesian nonsense in plain language: The party of “no” would cancel everything from road building to clean energy to small business investment. According to the Economic Policy Institute, their Pledge is a prescription for unemployment which would destroy 1 million jobs.
Add to this the GOP’s staunch defense of tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas, its hostility to safeguards against Wall Street excess, and its craven pandering to the insurance industry, which would once again be licensed to put profits ahead of health care.
All of it fits into a clear framework of choice, a robust message that has a chance to cut through, a persistent argument to voters that Democrats are on their side.
Some wonder whether Obama will take this course. He doesn’t have another option—except defeat in November. Disconnected and dispassionate appeals just won’t be heard. It’s time—and maybe there’s enough time—to portray the Republicans for what they are, the party of unfairness, unemployment, and unfettered speculation—not only in the past but now and in the future. It’s time to sound the progressive trumpet. If the president dares to be uncautious, he will be heard. Yes, he will.