Two incidents this week may foretell the outcome of the midterm elections.
First, the president signed a $26 billion bill to save the jobs of teachers, police, and firefighters across the country. Typically, he got the result he wanted, but little of the credit he needs. Both this latest success and his rather sparse comments about it, which were buried inside the newspapers and in the rundown on television news, swiftly faded for a nation now numbed to legislative landmarks and impatient for economic recovery.
Second, the president’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, stepped on his boss’ story. He scorned the Obama base with a self-indulgent attack on “the professional Left” for presuming to wish the president had accomplished even more than he has and for pushing him to do just that. I suspect Gibbs reflects a pervasive frustration inside the White House: Why don’t “they” give us credit for progress unprecedented in half a century? Put more artfully—we’ve done a lot, but we have a lot more to do—the point is not only correct, but potentially persuasive. Instead, Gibbs mimicked the language of the far Right—“the professional Left” won’t be satisfied until we have “Canadian-style health care.” This borrowed smear was all the more shameful because, in fact, most progressives rallied to health reform even after the public option was jettisoned.
Gibbs’ graceless non-apology two days later was worse than smug; it was stupid. The challenge is to enthuse the base, not abuse the base—especially in a polarized season when Republicans are far more motivated to trek to the polls.
A year ago I believed Republicans would be punished in the midterms for their strategy of obstruction as growth and job creation accelerated during 2010. Now both are slowing or stalled, and the disjunction between Main Street and Wall Street is becoming a convergence. Main Street is persistently disillusioned and Wall Street is suddenly doubtful.
Simply put, the strategy of "no" worked. The GOP reduced the size and distorted the shape of the stimulus package—and with the cowardly connivance of Blue Dog Democrats, it has blocked the chance for any second round. (If it’s any consolation, the self-defeating Blue Dogs will be the first casualties in November.)
None of this displeases Republicans, who yearn for the economy to falter so they can rise. And the underlying reasons for the faltering economy don’t matter to Americans who judge by results—or if they’re not in yet, by the perception of who’s fighting for them. The Great Depression wasn’t finished when FDR racked up a stunning victory in the 1934 midterms; however, today’s Democrats, while nearly matching the sweep of his historic achievements, have failed to connect the dots for voters in a way that can hold their allegiance through the painful mid-passage of an economic turnaround. The recession may be over in a technical sense; it may be over in terms of corporate profits; but it roars ahead in the lives of ordinary people. For them, recovery delayed is recovery denied.
If this paradigm holds on Election Day, Democrats could lose the House big and perhaps barely hold the Senate—despite the Tea Party coups that have freighted the GOP with nearly unelectable candidates. There’s too much at stake for the president here. A GOP Congress could mean a time of crackpot investigations of the administration and of calculated gridlock designed to batter the economy with budget cuts too far and too fast, ultimate driving Obama from the White House.
It’s time, as the president acknowledged this week in Texas, to fight back. Democrats have to build on a predicate of resolve with a narrative of principled choice. People don’t rally to a list of bills; Obama surely knows that. Only the president can shift the definition of the present campaign—and it won’t be easy even for him in a media environment that requires a sharp and focused message, constantly repeated. Over and over he has to articulate a clear and motivating choice: Who’s on your side?
As Ronald Reagan urged voters in a recession that, unlike Obama’s, he actually owned rather than inherited: “Stay the course.” His experience teaches a lesson that should guide this president. After all the travails, a renewed economy validates ideology. The Republicans will drown in their own Kool-Aid if they really believe the majority of Americans are inherently and permanently anti-government. By the presidential election, voters are likely to see an economy finally moving in the right direction despite a recession-mongering GOP. Obama might as well own the issue; by then it will own him.
If Gibbs hadn’t seized his wrongful place in this week’s news, and if the White House had seized on the bill saving the jobs of teachers and cops as an opportunity to signal an “on your side” message, the president might have started to shift the narrative of the midterms, engage progressives, and reach independents who think, wrongly, that he favors Wall Street over Main Street. “I’m in this … to take those tax breaks away from companies that move jobs overseas,” he said during the campaign. That’s exactly how the job-saving bill was paid for. It’s why the GOP was bound to oppose it. And the president should have hammered at that contrast because it’s the kind of choice he and the Democrats now have to run on.
The Republicans are already preening about the midterms. Believing themselves swans, in reality they’re sitting ducks. In the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the party’s popularity is at an all-time low. Their electoral prospects today are a function of protest and anger. The president, much as he may temperamentally resist it, has the potential to redirect that anger toward Republicans—not for their lack of bipartisanship (we’re past that), but for their commitment to serve the few while standing against every measure for jobs, for teachers and police, and for help to the long-term unemployed.
Obama should reset the stage for the midterms with a major speech that redraws the dividing lines. And when Congress returns in September, he can show the stark difference, not merely say it, by vigorously opposing extension of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent of income earners. The issue is unavoidable and Obama holds both the high cards and the high ground. The lower rates automatically expire at the end of the year. He can demand that they be renewed for the middle class, while relentlessly exposing Republicans for what they are, servitors of privilege. He should ask a simple, compelling question: Do we really want to borrow $700 billion more from the Chinese for a tax cut for the very rich?
Instead of more Bush giveaways at the top, which are the least effective way to stimulate the economy, he should demand that the money be invested in a two-year-long initiative to spur demand and create jobs.
The Blue Dogs will desert him on this and the GOP will predictably block it. So the president won’t win here, but he will begin to redefine the midterm contest. He will energize the base instead of insulting it. And by appealing to fundamental concerns about jobs and fairness, he will bring over independents and wavering Democrats.
Finally, by recasting the choice—“fighting for you or catering to the few”—Obama will have a concise message that allows his greatest substantive advances to shape the debate. He will be able to argue: On health reform, we stood for families whose children suffer from pre-existing conditions and the Republicans stood with the insurance industry; on financial reform, we stood with consumers and they stood with speculators. There’s a bonus on the tax cuts fight, too. It makes assailing Bush relevant—not simply as a convenient target for blame, which sounds like an excuse, but as an avatar of today’s Republicans, who are determined to renew Bush’s signature economic injustice at the expense of employment and economic growth.
Some midterm losses are inevitable. But a rout like 1994 can still be avoided if the president and Democrats actually say something—if they take a stand on the very ground of their party’s being. To dare that—to defy the counsels of caution, to embrace the courage of core conviction—that is “the fierce urgency of now.”