Written off for November. Bad polls and bleak news even in usually reliable blue states. Among the herd of prognosticators and analysts, an overwhelming consensus for a GOP takeover. To borrow the recent verdict of the Associated Press, “Time has all but run out for [the president] and his party.”
But what this also describes isn’t recent. The time was 1948 and the president was Harry Truman. It was 1 a.m. when he addressed a dispirited Democratic convention, where the panic was almost palpable: Do we really have to run with this guy?
The most famous part of the speech was in fact just the predicate for Truman’s larger, more salient message. He scorned the “do-nothing” Republicans in Congress just as Barack Obama now assails “the party of no.” But then Truman drew the dividing line on which he would wage his party’s entire campaign, from the convention to whistle-stops across America. “The Democratic Party is the people’s party and the Republican Party is the party of special interest, “ he said as the suddenly roused delegates jumped to their feet.
He described the GOP as a “citadel of privilege and greed”—and proved it by damning their “rich man’s tax bill” as a “rotten” thing that “sticks a knife in the back” of ordinary Americans. Democrats had a different view rooted in very different values: “Tax relief … ought to go to those who need it most, not those who need it least.” He then announced he was calling Congress back into session, a move which would starkly reinforce the case he was making—which he concluded could “save this country … from misrule from now on.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. President Obama doesn’t have to call the members of Congress back into session; they’re already there. But the issue once again is tax breaks for the people or for the privileged—and the natural battle lines are the same today as they were in 1948.
This week, this Democratic president summoned his party to that battle. Predictably his language was less salty than his predecessor’s—more Harvard than Harry—but he was unequivocal. Tax cuts for those making under $250,000 shouldn’t be held “hostage” to the Republican demand to extend the Bush “tax breaks for the wealthy”—which “economists don’t think … would do much to boost the economy.”
He even made a tax credit for research development and investment sound compelling. Voters aren’t exactly propelled to the polls by something like that—and they don’t usually march under a banner of “infrastructure,” Obama’s other new signature proposal. But they will respond when they learn, as the president plainly said, that the GOP opposed such job creating measures because they refuse to close “tax loopholes that incentivize investment in overseas jobs.”
Obama found his voice again this week, and he’ll have to raise it again and again in the next eight weeks. The notion, popular among Blue Dogs, that they can run by running away from the president is a timeworn mirage. Ask those who tried it in 1994 and discovered that to localize the election is to lose the election.
The president is decidedly more popular than the Congress or either party. Republicans, at historic lows, can prevail only as a vehicle for protest. In a craven new world where facts are fungible, they did manage to malign and limit the stimulus and to sell the lie that it hasn’t worked. In fact, the serious economic analyses are unequivocal: The stimulus saved millions of jobs and federal intervention probably averted a depression.
But it’s too late to re-adjudicate the lie in an economy of sluggish job growth and near 10 percent unemployment. The president and his party will benefit as the economy does recover. But not this year.
Obama has moved to policy arguments that not only reflect, but powerfully convey whose side each party is on. This is right in terms of Democratic ideals—and it’s smart strategy. The quavering Democrats—who aren’t very Democratic as they trifle with rubber-stamping the Bush handouts to the top 2 percent—apparently aren’t aware that they’re on the wrong side of public opinion as well as principle. There’s no majority virtually anywhere in America for borrowing $700 billion to finance a wrong-way windfall. And tax provisions that reward sending jobs overseas are even more unpopular.
Here the president holds the high ground politically. From it, he has the best chance to reframe 2010 as a choice, not a referendum—and to achieve the only conceivable success this year, the victory of lesser defeat and continued control of the House and the Senate. Indeed the choice he cast on the issues he chose not only can appeal to independents and moderates, but can energize Democrats who, according to poll after poll, are currently far less likely to cast a ballot in November. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, Republicans hold a nine-point lead in the generic congressional ballot among likely voters; among registered voters, the result is a tie. What the president did this week can engage the base and change the composition of the electorate—if he keeps on doing it, and I have no doubt he will.
The frame he set—the people versus the privileged—can and should be broadened to other issues and other constituencies. Obama has broken free of the animus toward Social Security rife in his deficit reduction commission and arraigned the GOP for planning to “privatize” the program. Add to that indictment the prescription of Rep. Paul Ryan—the Republican budget honcho in the House—to voucherize and vaporize Medicare. Pretty soon, if this message is hammered home so it’s heard and heard again, more senior citizens, the most likely midterm voters, will decide to turn toward Democrats.
Republican leader John Boehner’s cynical call to freeze federal spending at 2008 levels offers a similar opportunity. It would cut veterans’ health services by $13 billion next year alone—and slash education, health research, and environmental protection—all for the sake of that Bush tax cut for the highest earners. By posing this choice, the president can re-enlist and re-win millions of voters.
Finally, the message he sent this past week also told a coherent story about his first two years in office. On health reform, the Democrats stood up to the insurance companies—and the GOP stood with them. With financial reform, the Democrats fought to “end taxpayer funded bailouts”; the GOP wanted to let “Wall Street banks … take advantage of taxpayers and consumers.”
The word “narrative” has been overused in recent months; but it’s also something Democrats have underutilized as they pursued and passed a succession of historic changes. Now the president has created a narrative—one explicitly “rooted in my own family’s story”—that gives coherence to his achievements, identifies with the continuing apprehensions and hopes of Americans, and sets out a fundamental choice for the future: “a hand-up for middle-class families” or “cut[ting] more taxes for millionaires and cut[ting] more rules for corporations.”
It’s a travesty that the Tea Party and then the Republican Party have been able to seed and exploit a perverted populism that would actually serve the few at the expense of the many. Now Barack Obama has articulated a progressive populism that may avert a wave election in 2010—and move the longer and wider tides of politics toward a progressive generation.
The president’s doing it his way, true to his character and temperament. Harry Truman used to “give 'em hell.” This week, Barack Obama gave 'em heck. It’s authentically his voice—and I wouldn’t underestimate how it can echo through this election.