Countering the Enthusiasm Gap
What a difference two years make in times as serious as these. Two Novembers ago, all was hope and glory on the center-left in American politics, all was despair and despondency on the center-right. But that is not how things stand now. The political momentum has shifted back, and shifted back very quickly, into the hands of the very conservative forces whose future looked so bleak when Obama first entered the White House. Since those conservative forces are now not simply back on the offensive, but are also significantly more conservative in policy and ideology than were their defeated predecessors, this shift in momentum is both critical and potentially dangerous for those of us committed to progressive change. The rise of the new conservatism, unless stopped, will move the whole agenda of American politics even further to the right than it was in the Bush years. Stopping it requires many things: but it must begin with a clear understanding of why the tidal wave of progressive enthusiasm that swept Obama to the presidency has now dissipated.
So why have we seen this rapid change of fortunes? Some mixture of the following four reasons at least.
1. The Weakness of the Governing Coalition What many of us missed amid the euphoria of election night in 2008, but which now is all too evident, is that the Obama campaign put together a winning electoral coalition but not an effective governing one. Obama came to Washington with blue-dog Democrats as well as liberal legislators in his camp, and the need to keep such a diverse Democratic coalition together slowed the pace of reform and blunted its effectiveness. Divisions between Democrats undermined the reform capacity of the new administration, a capacity that was also quickly eroded by the willingness and ability of the Republican Party to use every procedural device – especially the Senatorial filibuster – to slow this administration down. Two years of procedural wrangling and Democratic Party infighting later, and the Obama promise of a new politics looks particularly empty, and almost certainly will cost Democrats votes in November. It is not fully their fault, but nonetheless it is they who will pay the price.
2. Insider dealing The scale of the problems left behind by the Bush administration initially induced many of Obama’s liberal supporters to cut the new administration a large amount of slack. In fact, many still do: so it is not primarily the scale of the problems faced by the Obama team that has eventually worn that support so thin. What has worn that support thin is the cautious nature of the administration’s response to the complex set of issues that it faced. In the eyes of many of his liberal supporters, Obama the President has proved way too prone to court the votes of conservative legislators at the cost of alienating liberal ones – way too willing to do deals to get something passed rather than to stand on principle and risk no deal at all. The gap between “campaigning in poetry and governing in prose,” to which the checks and balances of U.S. politics leaves it particularly vulnerable, drained the enthusiasm out of the Democratic base just as effectively as it re-galvanized the Republican one, and did both in very quick order.
3. The gap between promise and performance The lack of enthusiasm now evident in the Democratic base is also a response to another gap – that between the scale of the recession inherited by the Obama administration and the limited impact of policies designed to abate it. The woman who told the President in September that she “was tired of defending him” and that she was “waiting, sir, I’m waiting” spoke for many frustrated Democratic voters, significant numbers of whom will presumably and in consequence sit these mid-term elections out. It is certainly the case that things would have been even worse for the vast majority of middle-class Americans had the Obama stimulus package not been passed, but that must be small comfort indeed to the millions of Americans now facing/experiencing the loss of jobs and homes. Hypothetical scenarios of worse times under the Republicans are a hard sell in the midst of job insecurity and home foreclosures of the current scale – particularly from an administration whose stimulus package would have been bigger and more effective had its concessions to Republicans been fewer in number.
4. The Persistence of Recession And in any case, the very recession whose immediate impact carried Obama over the line to power in November 2008 has now hung around long enough to blunt the capacity of his administration to make the economic and social difference that his election promised. Obama defeated McCain for the presidency in no small measure because the financial tsunami occurred on George Bush’s watch, discrediting the entire Republican ticket as it did so. Obama’s governing majority is now under threat because the economic hardships triggered by that crisis is occurring on his watch and is having a similar discrediting effect. Those who live by the sword can also die by it. The sadness is that, if the cull of liberal legislators is as heavy as predicted, a crisis caused by unregulated markets will soon have the paradoxical effect of strengthening the political hands of those who favor regulating markets less.
Is there any way now of limiting the damage, ahead of the November mid-terms? Since the alternative is two years of Washington gridlock, it is certainly worth the try. But any Democratic vote this time is likely to be a predominantly defensive one: a warning of worse times ahead if Republicans win, and a celebration of the benefits of a hard-won health-care reform package whose implementation is only now slowly beginning. But as soon as the dust settles on these mid-term elections, we will need to go on the offensive again. The offensive task will be to win back in 2012 anything lost this November: and then the requirements of the hour will be absolutely clear: a total focus between now and 2012 on job creation and the relief of housing misery, the delivery of a social reform program that will bring the changes for which the woman still waits, the insistence of having no truck with Republicans too ideologically blinkered to bargain, and the selection by Democratic activists of candidates for office in 2012 who are in possession of impeccable liberal credentials.
Political battles require strong armies and clear leadership. Thus far, the Republicans seem to have grasped that fundamental truth but the Democrats have not. “Not wasting a good crisis” was supposed to be the Rahm Emanuel mantra in Obama’s first years in the White House. Well, there has been wastage enough on Emanuel’s watch. With him gone, it is time now to learn the lesson of an opportunity lost, and move on.
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.