international analysis and commentary

Angry Americans and Obama’s troubles

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How could President Obama’s dazzling triumph of less than two years ago be so thoroughly reversed in a matter of mere months? The explanations range from the good, to the bad, to the ugly.

The closest thing to a good explanation for Democrats is that they would be headed for a large setback whatever they did: The president’s party traditionally suffers significant losses in midterm voting, compounded here by the massive Democratic gains in the last two cycles in naturally-Republican constituencies. Still, it’s hard to just shrug off as to-be-expected what at this writing appear likely to be losses larger than those suffered in the disastrous Clinton midterm of 1994 or by the hapless Harry Truman in 1946 – and, in any event, Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002 actually led their parties to midterm gains. Democrats today would consider themselves blessed to receive merely the searing electoral rebuke given Ronald Reagan’s Republicans in the similarly recession-shadowed 1982 midterms: a 26-seat loss in the House and no change whatsoever in the Senate.

The bad excuse Democrats advance is that it’s unfair to punish them for a recession they inherited from Republicans. In fairness, at the time of Obama’s election, the world’s economy appeared headed toward a meltdown to rival the Great Depression; as bad as things may be, that didn’t happen. Sure, it’s impossible to prove the recession would have been even worse otherwise, including under such novel Republican alternatives as, say, increasing the national debt through tax cuts instead of spending, or, say, bailing out troubled businesses through tax cuts instead of spending; nonetheless, the fault for the public’s anger lies not in their stars but in the Democrats themselves. 

We’ve spent a generation’s worth of money, now owe it to the Chinese and failed to use it for anything of lasting value, such as a rebuilt infrastructure or the world’s best-educated young people; digging ourselves out of this hole will be long and painful. Of the many “resets” the President has talked about in his short tenure, this should have been the focus; in that light, anything, including today’s strained circumstances, would look like positive movement (in fact, private-sector employment is actually growing). The President, however, seems not to have wanted to dispel the euphoric expectations attending him. The President’s team promised that his stimulus plan would in fact hold unemployment to 6.5% and create millions of jobs. It might then have helped to realize that, to paraphrase legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, jobs aren’t everything – they’re the only thing. Instead, the President let congressional Democrats mismanage the stimulus bill into a perceived pork fest so that he could focus on his greater ministry of reshaping the American economy by changing all its underpinnings – education, energy and, of course, healthcare. The President’s vision is hardly, as Republicans assert, socialistic. But it is messianic. Unfortunately, the world is tough on messiahs. If you keep telling people “Yes We Can,” you have only yourself to blame if You Don’t.

Beneath all these relatively short-term phenomena remains, however, the long-term, simmering restiveness of the American public – and this is where it gets ugly. In previous Aspenia pieces, I’ve expounded the view that the problem isn’t so much that America’s major parties have moved to the extremes as that they haven’t moved at all: Both parties cling to positions of 50 years ago while the world, including the voters who live real, daily lives in that world, has changed around them. Increasingly, Americans have found both parties’ out-dated positions so equally irrelevant that they essentially flipped a coin every election – producing a long period of near-parity.  As it turns out, that doesn’t work very well. After a decade of stasis – roughly 1994 to 2004 – Americans apparently decided reluctantly that they needed to put somebody in charge and, so, to vote together in overwhelming numbers for one party or the other. Still dissatisfied, rightly, with the state of public policy, the vast majority of voters is flipping parties instead of coins in order to send a message (a revealing fact: in the last generation, every time one party has controlled the presidency and both chambers of Congress, it has lasted no more than four years and has ended in what’s called a “wave” – one might add, “of revulsion”…).

Anyone who thinks that it’s a message embracing the Republican or Tea Party agenda ought to pull out a paper bag for their hyperventilation: most Americans may be deeply dissatisfied with Obama’s policies, but they hardly embrace the positions this new breed of Republicans espouse – that programs like Social Security, Medicare, the minimum wage and, of all things, unemployment insurance are both unconstitutional and morally wrong. Most Americans do not share these revolutionaries’ conviction that a requirement to buy health insurance is tantamount to Nazism: they all buy health insurance, anyway. They simply think no one – neither the Democrats focused on expanding coverage to the poor nor Republicans shilling for big insurers and drug companies – is looking after their main healthcare concern, which is cost. And they’re correct. They’re angry, too, that these guys are seemingly focused on esoteric environmental issues and epoch-making social program expansion. Most voters aren’t necessarily against any – let alone all – of these things: they just want a focus on jobs. In case it’s not clear enough yet that Republicans are headed in the wrong direction, they have already served notice that investigating everyone in the White House will be their top priority – you know, just like all that Monica Lewinsky stuff Americans loved so much. 

It’s hard to imagine the American public liking any of this. Which makes it likely that 2012 will mark a big swing back to the Democrats. Flipping parties every two to four years, however, isn’t any better a way to choose a government than flipping coins. But it will continue until one party or the other – hopefully both – seriously rethinks its conception of politics and government to fit the realities of the 21st century.